Transport strike: UK fears «summer of discontent»

International 22 June, 2022

The largest strike of railway workers in three decades, which began on Tuesday, June 21, should last three days. The decline in purchasing power is at the root of the problems.

Deserted stations, rare trains arriving. The London Underground has almost stopped. And a country under the summer sun that mostly worked at home, avoiding travel. On Tuesday, June 21, the largest train strike since 1989 took place in the United Kingdom. In accordance with the law, the minimum traffic remained in force, but only 20% of the trains ran.

Mike Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers Union (RMT), could enjoy the start of the evening: «It’s fantastic that the strike is being watched so closely. It exceeded our expectations».

Two more days of strikes are planned this week, but this is just the beginning, he warns: «RMT members are ahead of all workers in the country who are tired of seeing their wages and working conditions destroyed as a result of the combination of big business profits and government policy».

The British media, never lacking in images, are already calling out the «summer of discontent», referring to the famous «winter of discontent» in 1979, when huge strikes paralyzed the country, from factories to garbage removal, bypassing gravediggers.

The scale of the current movement is not comparable to the scale of the late 1970s, but social discontent is unusually widespread for the UK. In addition to transport, social movements can break out in hospitals, schools, post offices, local communities and even among lawyers.

Anger stems mainly from a sudden drop in purchasing power. On the other side of the English Channel, inflation in May was 9.1%. According to the forecasts of the Bank of England, it should reach 11% in the autumn. At the same time, wages increased sharply in the private sector (8%), mainly due to bonuses, but not in the public sector (1.5%). For 5.7 million workers in this sector, this represents a sharp reduction in real wages after a decade of austerity.

Politically, Prime Minister Boris Johnson seems relatively satisfied with this great strike movement, which allows him to criticize trade unions.

As compensation, the RMT, which does not represent train drivers, but all other railway workers, demands a 7% salary increase. This is less than inflation, because negotiations began in December 2021, even before the war in Ukraine, when no one expected such a jump in prices. Thirteen railway companies operating under private law but regulated by government agencies offer only 3%.

Added to this wage clash is the possible loss of 1,800 jobs at Network Rail, the state-owned company that runs the railways. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the development of remote work, the use of trains has sharply decreased, and savings are needed. RMT claims that this project jeopardizes the security of the network.