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The strikes are the biggest to hit the railways since 1989 and they will impact millions of commuters.Toby Melville/Reuters

Britain is bracing for the largest rail strike in 33 years this week and more labour unrest is expected over the summer as unions demand higher wages to offset the soaring cost of living.

The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), which represents 40,000 railway workers, plans to go ahead with a national strike on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday in a dispute that centres around pay and job security. The union is also holding a one-day walkout on Tuesday that will affect the London Underground.

The Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, which represents train drivers, also plans a series of strikes in June and July that will further cripple several rail services.

The strikes are the biggest to hit the railways since 1989 and they will impact millions of commuters. The job action also coincides with several big summer events such as the Glastonbury music festival and Wimbledon. The dispute has also forced Eurostar to cancel 41 trains from London to France, Belgium and the Netherlands over the next week.

Rail strike in Britain leaves millions to find alternative transportation

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of industry group UK Hospitality, estimated that the RMT strike will cost the country’s tourism sector more than £1-billion.

Most of the RMT members work at Network Rail, which owns and maintains all rail lines across the country. It also manages 20 train stations in several cities including in Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Birmingham. Train services are operated by separate companies, which bid for franchises to run specific routes. National Rail has warned of widespread service disruptions including on non-strike days because of a spillover effect.

Wage growth has become a major issue for labour leaders as Britain faces a surge in inflation driven partly by the war in Ukraine, which has pushed up the price of oil and many agricultural commodities. Inflation has been running at 9 per cent this spring and the Bank of England expects it to rise above 11 per cent by October.

Unions representing teachers, health care workers, London bus drivers and lawyers have indicated that they too will go on strike this summer if they don’t receive wage settlements that take into account the inflation rate.

Christina McAnea, general secretary of Unison, which is one of Britain’s largest trade unions, told delegates at a conference last week to get “strike-ready.”

“If we have to, we will strike, to protect public service workers and the public services we all depend on,” she told the meeting. “Are we going to sit back and let the liars, cheats and fraudsters in Westminster get away with saying they won’t give us a proper pay rise?”

Negotiations between the RMT and Network Rail have been continuing for weeks but the talks broke down on the weekend. The union rejected an offer that included a 2-per-cent wage increase plus a further 1-per-cent hike based on productivity improvements. RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said the proposal was insufficient given Britain’s rate of inflation.

“I think there are going to be many unions balloting across the country, because people can’t take it any more,” Mr. Lynch told Sky News on Sunday. “We have got people doing full-time jobs who are having to take state benefits and use food banks. That is a national disgrace.”

Andrew Haines, Network Rail chief executive, confirmed that talks had not progressed but he called the strike needless. “Make no mistake, the level of service we will be able to offer will be significantly compromised and passengers need to take that into account and to plan ahead and only travel if it’s really necessary to do so,” he said on Saturday.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the RMT’s decision to strike was a “stunt” and he added that it would inconvenience millions of people including key workers and those trying to get to hospital appointments. “The unions have been gunning for this strike throughout. This strike is completely unnecessary,” Mr. Shapps said Sunday. “It is no way to behave on the railway. There is no advantage to this.”

Network Rail is a public-sector body that operates independently from government but it receives substantial taxpayer support. During the pandemic, the government kicked in around £16-billion to keep the rail network afloat.

The fight for higher wages comes as the government and rail operators have been moving to cut costs because of the impact of the pandemic. While all COVID-19 restrictions in Britain were lifted months ago, train ridership remains roughly 25 per cent below pre-pandemic levels.

The industry has been trying to modernize its operations by using more technology to do maintenance jobs. Network Rail has said that it wants to cut up to 2,500 jobs through voluntary severance as part of a plan to reduce spending by £2-billion. The Sunday Times reported that the business also plans to phase out all ticket offices and force passengers to buy tickets online.

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