The Government of Boris Johnson has found this week a surprise that has encouraged him to be firm in his fight with the unions: the successful dress rehearsal of teleworking from home, forced during the long months of the pandemic, has helped to considerably reduce the chaos foreseen in the biggest public transport strike of the last thirty years. “The first data shows that, unlike in the past, many people now have the opportunity to work from home. There hasn’t even been congestion on the roads. The unions have not achieved the global impact they aspired to,” said a spokesman for the Ministry of Transport. UK inflation now stands at 9.1%, according to data released on Tuesday. The highest figure in four decades. The Bank of England already calculates that it may end up being 11% at the end of the year. The British prime minister is determined, as he explained to members of his government, to “stay the course” and withstand the challenge of labor conflict, convinced that it is necessary to prevent an uncontrolled wage increase for public workers from aggravating the situation.
The strike plan approved by the 40,000 members of the Railroad, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, meant practically total stoppages on Tuesday, as well as this Thursday and next Saturday. Affects the network managed by the public company NetworkRail and thirteen private operators. The reduced hours of the days in between, and the lack of preparatory tasks carried out by the night shift staff, guaranteed that the chaos would continue throughout the week.
London had noticeably heavier traffic than usual throughout Tuesday, and long queues at bus stops were common. The subway workers also went on strike that day, for the same reasons: a salary increase that allows them to face the current crisis in the cost of living.
Company and union have agreed this Wednesday to sit down at the negotiating table again. RMT representatives ask for a salary increase of 7%. Network Rail offers 3% plus productivity bonus. But it already warns of the need to “modernize outdated labor practices” —for example, ticket sales offices, with hardly any activity— which will mean the dismissal of 1,900 people. The union refuses to talk about anything other than voluntary and incentivized terminations.
No direct intervention
The Johnson government has so far resisted calls for it to intervene directly in the negotiation, despite the fact that Network Rail is a public company and the money to support the rest of the private operators comes out of the budget. “If we are going to make colossal investments [en la red ferroviaria], as is our obligation, reforms must be introduced. And I am already warning the entire country: we need to stand firm and not change course”, the prime minister told members of his government, but also citizens, because he allowed the cameras to enter a room normally vetoed for that speech. the media.
Johnson is torn between political opportunity and economic necessity. Teachers of public education, nursing staff, doctors or municipal and postal service workers are thinking of joining the railway strike. The general secretary of the UK’s largest trade union confederation, the TUC, has already warned the government that it could face serious problems if it decides to turn this dispute into a political confrontation. “I have already been asked on several occasions if we can end up carrying out a coordinated action, and I have not ruled it out,” said Frances O’Grady. The Conservative government, convinced that public opinion will end up on its side, even plans to promote incendiary legislation that would allow railway companies to replace strikers with personnel from external placement agencies (similar to ETTs in Spain). “There are already laws against this maneuver since 1973, and not even Margaret Thatcher dared to go that far,” warned TUC number two Paul Nowak. “That kind of action prolongs the conflict and makes it more bitter,” he has said.
Although a majority of citizens support, in principle, the railway workers’ strike – 58% believe it is justified, according to the company’s survey Savanta ComRes—, support among those over 55 and among Conservative voters is much lower (44% and 38%, respectively) than among young and Labor voters (72% and 79%). Johnson plays against his own parish, very disappointed in him over the Downing Street party scandal during the lockdown, and which usually shows his rejection of any strike.
But the economic component, and the fear of galloping inflation, also have their weight in the current situation. “It is fair to compensate public sector employees, who have worked very hard [durante la pandemia] with a salary increase, but it must be proportionate and balanced, ”said Johnson, in line with the claims of the Bank of England. “High levels of inflation sustained for a long time would affect the pockets of citizens in the long term, would end private savings and would extend the difficulties that we are facing now,” warned the British Prime Minister. Johnson is determined to put his foot down in the face of the discontent of many workers with an unleashed cost of living crisis, and is preparing to hold out against what the media predicts as “the summer of discontent.”
“Our affiliates are leading the rest of the workers in this country who are tired and fed up with having their wages slashed by a mix of big corporate profits and current government policy,” said Mick Lynch, RMT General Secretary, the union at the forefront of the strike on the railways.
The leader of the Labor Party, Keir Starmer, who has tried in the last three years to banish with a moderate speech the image too far to the left of his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, knows that strikes are a minefield. The strength of the unions in the main opposition party, when it comes to financing their activity, nurturing their cadres, mobilizing the bases and electing the leadership, is immense. But the image of picketing is devastating to a middle-class electorate. Starmer forbade his team from approaching them, but at least three of his top deputies — members of the party leadership — took photos Tuesday with the pickets that they posted on their Twitter accounts. And more than fifteen deputies without responsibility in the formation also expressed their support for the strikers. “No one takes a strike lightly, but I will always stand up for everyone’s absolute right to stand up for fair work,” said Starmer’s number two, Angela Rayner. Her provenance from corbynism it does not prevent him from professing a clear loyalty to the current leader, but at times he plays the role of a bridge between the two souls of Labour.
The conservatives, meanwhile, take advantage of the internal tear of their rivals. The Minister of Justice, Dominc Raab, with a certain tendency to hooliganism politician, has accused Labor of “actively encouraging all the inconvenience users are experiencing”.
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