Strike action paralyzes UK

July 30, 2022 - 17:52

More and more workers from different sectors in the United Kingdom are taking industrial action as public anger mounts at low wages in the face of a rising cost of living crisis gripping the country. 

Both the government and main opposition Labour party leaders have chosen to take sides with private companies (making record profits) at the expense of workers (struggling with record inflation). Labour has sacked its shadow transport minister for joining the striking workers.

The government’s own transport secretary has also come under fire for trying to implement measures that would curb the ability of unions to take action.

In the latest and the largest strike action by train workers on Saturday, commuters were hit as rail services were severely disrupted in the most widespread train drivers protest since 1996 when the railways were privatized.

Members of the UK’s train driver’s union, Aslef, stopped working for 24 hours for seven train operators leaving only a few trains running on some lines. 

The train drivers strike comes only three days after a national strike by members of the RMT union shut down most train services. On Wednesday, millions of travelers were affected as a bitter row between RMT members and privatized rail companies worsened over work conditions, jobs, pay, and pensions. 

The train workers walkout on Saturday coincided with the first weekend of the Commonwealth Games. The train company which runs services to sporting venues around Birmingham, the host city of the Games, had no services leaving passengers scrambling for alternative routes. No trains ran at all on most of the London Overground, with no Heathrow Express line to the UK’s largest airport.

Aslef, like sister unions the RMT and the TSSA, hit out at the government for preventing the privatized industry from offering a pay rise in line with record inflation.

A spokesman said strikes were “always the last resort” but that the union had been “forced into this position by the companies, who say they have been driven to this by the Tory government”. He added that many of his members had not received a pay rise since 2019, in essence suffering a pay cut.

London mayor, Sadiq Khan, has backed the strike action saying responsibility for the strikers lay with the government, which was “interfering with rail companies who want to do a deal”.

Khan said: “The only way these disputes are ever resolved is if [the transport secretary] Grant Shapps and the government stops pulling the strings and allows the rail companies to talk to the trade unions.”

Further strike action is planned for August. 

In June, the postal sector took action with Royal Mail managers voting to strike in a dispute over job cuts and a redeployment program to bring in “worsening terms and conditions”. Members belonging to the Unite union in UK overwhelmingly backed walkouts over the dispute, which involved around 2,400 managers across more than 1,000 delivery offices.

The union’s general secretary, Sharon Graham, said “enough is enough” and “make no mistake, Royal Mail is awash with cash – there is no need whatsoever to sack workers, drive down pay or pursue this ill-thought-out redeployment program. These plans are all about boardroom greed and profiteering and nothing whatsoever to do with securing this vital public service.”

Bus workers, bin lorry workers, tram workers, airlines, and BT Broadband staff have already or will go on strike this summer. 

Meanwhile, the shadow transport minister, Sam Tarry, has been sacked for defying orders by the opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer to join a picket line.

Tarry joined workers on a picket line and made several posts on social media, as well as appearing on British media. He said “It can’t be accepted anymore, that people just have to accept that inflation is out of control. The government’s doing nothing on the cost of living crisis.”

In a statement, he also said “these key workers kept our train services running throughout the pandemic, and were among Britain’s Covid heroes alongside the NHS and other public services.”

“Those same workers have been forced to take action because they’re faced with a cost-of-living crisis and rampant inflation caused by the government’s mismanagement of our economy, leaving millions struggling to pay their bills and provide for their families, made worse by the fact that callous and incompetent ministers refuse to even negotiate with their trade unions.”

A number of Labour MPs have already expressed support for the sacked minister.

MP Ian Lavery says the sacking was “shameful”. He wrote on social media that “supporting workers at the RMT union and all other workers in dispute is in the best traditions of what the UK Labour [party] was founded for and should stand for.” MP Kate Osamorn also weighed in saying the party should not lose sight of the “fight for ordinary people”.

More members of parliament have also joined picket lines or expressed solidarity with striking workers across the country.

Further strikes are already planned for the coming weeks. This is despite Grant Shapps, the government’s Transport Secretary setting out a series of measures to try and curb union power. Writing in a Conservative Party-affiliated National newspaper, he set out his plans involving as many as 16 measures. The planned restrictions on union action come despite the government saying it doesn’t want to get involved. 

Ironically Shapps has ruled out meeting union leaders to break the deadlock, even if the situation escalated saying he was “not the right person to be in the room negotiating”. 

In response, union leaders have condemned the proposals, calling them an “attack on the fundamental right to strike” and that they would “be the green light for a return to the worst workplace abuses of the past”.

Sharon Graham, general secretary of the UK’s largest trade union Unite, said the government had “miscalculated” with its attacks on union rights.

The TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said “these proposals are anti-democratic and anti-worker.”

The Unison general secretary, Christina McAnea, said “the government wants to turn the clock back to Victorian times when children were sent up chimneys and working people ruthlessly exploited. Unions are trying to help employees through the worst cost of living crisis in recent history. Ministers want to demonize unions to distract from their own failings.”

Meanwhile, around 40,000 British Telecom (BT) and Openreach workers have walked off the job in the first national telecoms strike since 1987.

Hundreds of picket lines have been set up across the UK, according to the CWU union. It is the first of two strikes, with another set to take place on Monday, after members of the union refused a pay rise offer.

The CWU said that the striking workers are from a number of different divisions "they do run all of the maintenance on Britain's broadband services, but they also work keeping up national infrastructure from the NHS to the Ministry of Defence to mobile phone masts."

MP Lavery again expressed support saying “Why should workers stand by and accept a pay cut while the companies they work for accumulate huge profits?

He added “for too long this government has facilitated the redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. We are told that there is a cost of living crisis, yet companies like Shell, Centrica, and Openreach record profits.”

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