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High inflation and anti-strike laws ignite London train workers, but people complain about their strikes

About one and a half months ago, Gyrd Hanks planned to watch the Eurovision Song Contest Final in person, which is about three hours of public transport from his home at London Zone 5. However, on May 13th, when the final contest began, he was sitting on the couch, drinking beers, and watching the show live on TV, all because of the RMT strike that disrupted the Avanti West Coast line operation.

The Avanti West Coast Line was not alone. A total of 19 rail operators were affected due to the strike that took place on May 12th and 13th, led by RMT and ASLEF unions, as their salary increase proposals got declined amid the sky-high inflation rate in the UK and the new anti-strike law. Although the strike gained support from the public, some have raised complaints.

Hanks said he understood the frustration and dissatisfaction of the train workers. Still, being a fan of the Eurovision Contest, he was rather unhappy about not being able to attend the show in person. “The inflation and ascending living costs are something we all need to face. Sometimes I feel like the unions are too greedy,” he said.

A poster outside a station reminds passengers of the services affected by the strikes in May

According to National Rail, the strike covered “large areas of the national network.” National Rail also warned about late start and disruption of the network on the day following the striking day.

“I have four kids, plus my wife. That makes it difficult for us to go on a private vehicle for any trips together,” said Hanks. He said that the family heavily relies on the rail or buses to travel. The RMT and ASLEF union strikes forced him to cancel the Eurovision Contest family trip.

The long-term salary dispute between the RMT union members and the company triggered the strike once again. The demand from the members was to propose a pay increase of up to 14.4% for the lowest earners and 9.2% for the highest earners. However, the request was not satisfied, and the negotiation remained sluggish. Similarly, ASLEF declined the 8% salary increase as well. The union proposed a backdated pay rise of 4% for 2022 and another 4% increase in 2023, in response to the high inflation rate caused by the Russia-Ukraine war and energy prices surge.

Plus, the new anti-strike legislation that will enforce 'minimum service levels' in key public sectors including the NHS and schools has provoked an angry reaction from unions, with tens of thousands of workers striking across all sectors in recent months demanding better working conditions and pay rises in line with inflation, which is still in double digits in the UK.

“We are striking so that the employers and government can see the huge anger amongst rail workers is very real and they need to recognise that fact, face reality and make improved proposals,” said RMT general secretary Mick Lynch, “We are calling for the rail companies to get around the table with RMT and negotiate in good faith for a better deal for rail workers.”

Lynch said that while the strike caused a loss of taxpayers amounting to £1.25 billion, the train companies' administration got pay raises from 15% to 275%.

“Britain has long been a root for labour movement and labour disputes. Our democratic system empowers great strength and independence to labour unions,” said Christian Dustmann, a population economist in the University College of London.

Dustmann said the salary rise could not follow up the pace of the current annual inflation rate in the UK, which rose by 10.1% in the past 12 months to May 2023, according to the Bank of England. Apart from inflation, energy prices leaped after Russia invaded Ukraine. The oil prices jumped to a high of 159 pence per litre, which was almost two times higher than pre-war prices, according to

“(My wife and I) We used to spend less than £800 per season on gas and electricity. But last month I paid more than £400 for the gas and nearly £100 for electricity,” said Andy Catto, a tour guide in London.

Dustmann said the rising living costs were one explanation. “The anti-trade union laws outraged the labour unions,” he said, referring to the law that allows bosses in health, education, fire, ambulance, rail and nuclear commissioning to sue unions and sack employees if minimum service levels are not met. The law was introduced in January 2023, and May 13 was marked as the last day that strikes were allowed before the law came into enforcement.

Political journalist Sophie Corcoran disagreed with the train strike as well. She said on Twitter that “train strikes punish the working class the most - the poorest in society.

The people who can't afford a taxi to work… Strikes aren’t for the working class.”

The median salary for a train driver is £59,000, and the median salary for rail workers is £44,000, compared with £31,000 for a nurse and £21,000 for a care worker, according to the former Transport Secretary Grant Shapps on 15 June 2022. The median salary for non-retired UK households was £34,000 in 2022.

London has one of the world’s most dated and complicated railway systems, which the citizens heavily rely on.

“This year we already suffered from fewer strikes compared to the year before,” said Dustmann. Although the energy prices “are still at high level,” it has already fallen back, which would cool down inflation, according to the Bank of England. In addition to the ease of production hardship after the COVID, the import prices would fall. However, Dustmann said the unions would not easily give up struggling even if inflation gets better.

As part of a long-running dispute with train operators over jobs, pay, and economic conditions, more than 20,000 rail workers in England engaged in a 24-hour strike that canceled half of the services on affected lines on June 2.

The RMT strike, the second of three by rail unions this week, affected most operators in England as well as some cross-border services into Scotland and Wales.

One day later, more than 12,000 members of Aslef, the train drivers' union, staged a second strike for the week, leaving only 40% of services operational.

The negotiation would have resolved the dispute and given the lowest-paid staff a rise of up to 13%, the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) said in response to RMT’s strike on Saturday (June 3).

“By calling more strike action, the RMT leadership have chosen to prolong this dispute without ever giving their members a chance to have a say on their own offer,” said the RDG spokesperson.

Lynch said, instead of working to end the dispute, amidst a cost-of-living crisis it appears, that the government has no idea how to tackle these problems. The cumulative cost of these series of strikes is now estimated at £5 billion.

Hanks said he had no choice but to get used to the rail’s off-service from time to time. “Maybe it gets better as soon as the cost of living cools down. Before then I just have to check the striking schedule regularly,” he said.

《The Young Reporter》

The Young Reporter (TYR) started as a newspaper in 1969. Today, it is published across multiple media platforms and updated constantly to bring the latest news and analyses to its readers.


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