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Explained: Why is the UK seeing its biggest strike by railway workers in 30 years?

Britain is in the middle of its biggest rail strike in 30 years. Tens of thousands of rail workers took part in a mass walkout on Tuesday (June 21), protesting frozen salaries, changing working conditions, and proposed job cuts.

Over 40,000 railway staff of the National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport workers (RMT) took part in the strike, which will continue on June 23 and 25 as well, after last minute talks with train operating companies failed on June 20.

With skyrocketing inflation and rising cost of living, the railway strike could mark the beginning of the UK’s ‘summer of discontent’, as various other unions have also threatened to hold similar strikes.

Why are the railway workers striking?

Formed in 1990, the RMT is one of Britain’s largest transport trade unions, with more than 80,000 members, including guards, construction staff, catering staff and cleaners.

Its members are protesting against the National Rail, a public sector body that owns, operates and manages the infrastructure of the majority of Britain’s railway networks. On May 24, RMT union members voted overwhelmingly to conduct a strike over salary and proposed job cut disputes.

The UK is facing its highest rate of inflation in 40 years; consumer prices rose by 9% in April 2022. The Bank of England warned that it could increase by more than 11% later in the year, due to rising energy prices, The Wall Street Journal reported.

RMT workers claim that despite the economic turmoil, their salaries have not increased for the past 2-3 years. To meet the rising cost of living, they are demanding raises of at least 7%. The union has said that Network Rail’s offer of a 2% increase, with the possibility of another 1%, is “unacceptable”, the BBC reported.

Another point of contention is the National Rail’s proposed modernisation programme. According to the RMT, this would entail an increase in working hours and the removal of around 2,500 maintenance jobs in order to save £2 billion over the next few years. The RMT claims these jobs are critical to maintain the safety standards of the railways.

What has been the government’s response?

Government officials have said it is wrong to argue that the budget has been cut by £2 billion. Instead, they have said, £16 billion of taxpayers’ money was used to support the railways during the coronavirus pandemic, the BBC reported.

The government has also argued that the changes are required because rail revenues have fallen significantly — passenger numbers currently are a fifth of pre-pandemic figures. People’s travel habits have changed, and “the railway has to change as well to adapt to this new reality”, Andrew Haines, Network Rail chief executive said on May 25.

Network Rail has also said that 2,000 jobs — and not 2,500 as alleged by RMT — would be lost, but none of these cuts would make the railways any less safe.

What sort of salaries do rail workers get?

During a parliamentary debate on June 15, Britain’s Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said that there has been a “nearly 40% increase in salaries over the last 10 years”. According to the BBC, in reality there has been an increase of only 24%, from £35,329 in 2011 to £43,747 in 2022. During this decade, prices rose by about 20%.

Shapps also said that the median salary for the rail sector was £44,000 (annually; a little more than Rs 42 lakh at the current exchange rate), “which is significantly above the median salary in the country”. The RMT disagrees — it argues that if drivers, who are among the better paid railway workers, are excluded from the calculation, and cleaning staff are included (to better represent those striking), the median salary will be £33,000, the BBC report said.

What impact has the strike had?

Millions of travellers were hit by the strike on Tuesday, as only about 20% of passenger trains were scheduled. Commuters were inconvenienced further because of a separate walkout by workers of the London Underground, media reports said.

While strikes were not held on Wednesday, due to the continuing effects of the disruption only 60% of trains were scheduled to run. Talks were held among the protesting RMT members, the Network Rail, and train companies.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the strikes were “wrong and unnecessary”, and would further damage businesses recovering from Covid-19 disruptions. The AP cited a calculation by the consultancy The Centre for Economics and Business Research saying three days of strikes (June 21, 23, and 25) would cost the economy around £91 million.

What happens here onward?

RMT secretary general Mick Lynch said on Tuesday that the protests would continue until a settlement was reached. “RMT members are leading the way for all workers in this country who are sick and tired of having their pay and conditions slashed,” he said. “Now is the time to stand up and fight for every single railway worker in this dispute that we will win.”

A wide range of other public sector workers too have threatened industrial action. In response to the increasing costs of living in Britain, unions representing teachers, airport staff, health workers, barristers, waste disposal workers, civil servants and local government workers have all threatened to strike unless their demands for pay increases are met.

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