Railway staff strike multiplies troubles for the British economy

It is estimated that the three-day strike beginning from June 21 has cost more than 100 million pounds (Rs. 955.48 crores) to the country’s economy already under distress due to the rising fuel prices caused by on-going Ukraine-Russia conflict

Within weeks of re-establishing his writ in the treasury benches, the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, faces a formidable challenge of keeping the working classes satisfied amidst soaring prices. The on-going Ukraine-Russia conflict has aggravated the economic crisis. The inflation has reached to dangerous level, perhaps more than 40 per cent forcing the transport workers serving the underground railways as well as train services to go on a three-day strike.

Johnson, a journalist-turned politician, was able to regain the confidence of the conservative party members in the House of Commons on June 4, 2022, and the agitation hit the people on June 21.  If it continues, it may be repeat of “winter of discontents of 1978-79”, when industrial workers had agitated. This time the strike of the tube railways has combined with a rail strike, the Transport for London (TfL) and Network Rail.

It is difficult to predict the outcome of the agitation joined by more than 40,000 workers, but it is clear that it has deeply hurt the transport services and may become a prolonged “Summer of Discontent”. Unless Johnson takes initiative and intervenes, the threats of his ministers might become counter-productive. There are few takers to the statement of the Transport Minister, Shapps, that the government would amend the laws to force train operators to resume the services and that they would be able to recruit on temporary basis new staff for operating the system.

Amidst this agitation, the allegation of the Labour leader, Sir Keir Stamer, that Johnson was trying to appoint his girl friend, Carie Symonds, who later became his wife, as the chief of staff in the foreign office, is being taken as a comic relief, in this tense atmosphere. It is also being stated that the news was removed from the Times due to the pressure of the Downing Street (official residence of the British PM).

In spite of the challenges or many scandals being faced by his government, Johnson is confident of winning the political challenges with his charismatic personality. Amidst the strike, he holds a lavish fund-raising party, where one has to cough up 120,000 pounds (Rs. 1.15 crores) to join the dinner with the PM or 37,000 pounds (Rs. 35.37 lakhs) for participating in a shooting weekend.

If Johnson could successfully face his existential challenge from the party’s back-benchers, he is also confident of winning the economic crisis. He has stated the British railways must shed off their 19th century practices; perhaps, his predecessors did not dare to raise the issue. He, however, has dared, perhaps knows how to play a political game, re-organize it and again play the game. He is also not scared of the reports that the separatists might again raise their demand for a separate Scotland.

Many commentators have stated that the he himself is to blame for the economic crisis accompanied by the new political challenges facing the government. It, perhaps, happened due to his scant regard for norms and laws. It is being apprehended that the strike, which has adversely affected the British economy might snowball into a political storm adversely affecting the political fortune of the ruling Conservative Party. The issue is whether Johnson can repeat the Conservative Party’s resounding victory in the next elections, which was attained 30 month ago under his leadership. It is also being pointed out that the economic challenges might also give legitimacy to a racist political outfit like the British National Party (BNP) and its leader, Adam Walker. The BNP is a far-right, fascist political party, which has so far failed to get any elected seat in the House of Commons, but the economic challenges might enable it to blame the minorities and Asians for the plight of the British. The recent success of Marine Le Penn’s National Rally Party from its meagre nine-member strength to 89 in the recently held elections in the French National Assembly could inspire and reinvigorate such ultra-rightists in Britain.

The Financial Impact

It is estimated that the three-day strike beginning from June 21 has cost more than 100 million pounds (Rs. 955.48 crores) to the country’s economy already under distress due to the rising fuel prices. The protest has begun against the unchecked rising cost of essential goods and skyrocketing inflation.

More than 25,000 people could not use the public transport system to reach their respective work places almost hitting every section of the population. The strike has hit the country after a lapse of 30 years, when tens of thousands of rail workers had taken part in a mass walkout protesting against frozen salaries, changing working conditions and the apprehension of job cuts.

The on-going stir has been joined by as many as 40,000 railway staff of the National Union of Rail Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT). It had begun following the collapse of the talks between the union leaders and the train operating companies.

The Johnson Government cannot claim that the workers had resorted to strike without any notice. Earlier, on May 24, RMT union members had voted overwhelmingly to conduct a strike over salary and proposed job cut disputes. The economy has been under tremendous pressure since the outbreak of war between Ukraine and Russia during February this year. The conflict has pushed the price of oil to its highest level for nearly 14 years at one point and this has had a knock-on impact on fuel costs, with UK petrol prices hitting record highs.

Gas prices have also soared, leading to warnings that average energy bill could jump to 3000 pound (Rs.2.86 lakh approx.) annually in next four months from the existing 2000 pounds (Rs.1,91,120.55). “The war has increased the risk of a recession derailing the supply of critical commodities to many sectors of the economy,” according to  Suren Thiru from the British Chambers of Commerce.

The UK is facing its highest rate of inflation in 40 years; consumer prices rose by nine per cent in April 2022. The Bank of England has warned that it could increase by more than 11 per cent later in the year, due to rising energy prices.

The RMT workers have repeatedly stated 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 seven per cent. The union has said that Network Rail’s offer of a two per cent increase, with the possibility of another one per cent, is “unacceptable”. The unions have also refused to accept the proposal for modernizing the National Rail, which is expected to result in increase in working hours and the removal of around 2,500 maintenance jobs in order to save two billion pounds over the next few years. The RMT claims these jobs are critical to maintain the safety standards of the railways.

Johnson has claimed that the strike is “wrong and unnecessary”, and would further damage businesses recovering from Covid-19 disruptions. However, the RMT secretary general Mick Lynch has stated 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.”

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 go on strike unless their demands for pay increases are met.

The Scottish Dilemma

The issue of independence has always been high on the Scottish political agenda – and Brexit has cemented its salience. The Scottish government is currently seeking the transfer of power from Westminster to hold another independence referendum, but Johnson appears to be in no mood to concede this request. The demand, however, for a fresh referendum on the issue of independence is likely to haunt the British politics and might become more pronounced during the economic turmoil.

The transport workers’ strike appears to have unleashed new challenges for the leadership of Johnson. It is being ruled out at least for the present that he might agree to abdicate in favour of Rishi Sunak to lead Britain in this crisis. The issue of Carry Symonds, now officially married to Johnson after being blessed by a son, is the daughter Mathew Symonds, one of the founders of the British daily, The Independent. It is for the first time in the past 250 years that a PM has raised a family while in office. The optimists are hopeful that Sunak will successfully tackle the economic crisis and convince the unions as well as the trade chambers and, perhaps, Scottish people that British unity is in the interests of everybody.