Britain’s rail strikes begin wave of festive season walkouts

The rail strikes are being held over two 48-hour periods this week, from Tuesday to Wednesday and from Friday to Saturday. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON - British rail workers on Tuesday began a two-day national strike, kicking off a month of walkouts involving groups from nurses to passport-control workers that could spell Christmas misery for millions.

Rush-hour commuters faced a battle to get to work, while many opted to stay at home, as thousands of members of the country’s biggest rail union, the RMT, launched their latest stoppage over a below-inflation pay offer.

Braving the ice and snow that has already hit travellers, picketers appeared at major railway stations early on Tuesday, as train services wound down and people were advised to travel only if essential.

Trains were running only from 7.30am to 6.30pm on strike days, with just one in five services expected to run.

At London’s Kings Cross station, Mr Allan Smith, a 28-year-old Web developer, said he sympathised with the strikers despite struggling to get to Heathrow airport.

“I totally get it. It’s hard for the people at the moment,” he said.

Former firefighter Chris McBride, 74, blamed “incompetent government” for the chaos, with more stoppages planned between now and into the New Year.

Britain is experiencing a wave of industrial action on a scale not seen since the 1980s, with inflation in double digits pushing up the cost of living and energy costs soaring due to the war in Ukraine.

Postal workers are staging a two-day strike from Wednesday, while nurses are set to walk out for the first time in their union’s 106-year history on Thursday – again over pay.

Rail workers will hold another two-day strike from Friday, when they will be joined by bus drivers, highway workers and airport baggage handlers.

Border Force staff checking passports at major airports including Heathrow and Gatwick will strike over Christmas.

RMT members on Monday rejected an eleventh-hour pay offer from Network Rail, which owns the country’s railway infrastructure, leading its staff, along with workers from 14 train companies, to walk out.

Network Rail offered its workers a pay rise of five per cent backdated for this year and a further four per cent at the start of 2023.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said: “This is a huge rejection of Network Rail’s substandard offer.” He said the pay offer was tied to “thousands of job losses” and an increase in unsocial hours.

Network Rail boss Andrew Haines was pessimistic over chances of a breakthrough, as the government urged the RMT to call off the strikes. “Where I stand today, I’d have to say that with the level of disruption the RMT are imposing, the way forward isn’t obvious,” he told BBC television.

Transport minister Mark Harper wrote in right-wing broadsheet The Daily Telegraph Monday that the government “has worked hard to ensure there is a fair two-year pay deal on the table”.

He said the proposed deal was more generous than in the private sector and would unlock “essential reforms”.

The rail strikes will hinder people’s travel plans for Christmas.

The government on Monday urged unions to call off planned strikes that will hit healthcare and mail delivery over the Christmas period.

Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden said: “I don’t think most people think it’s fair and reasonable to undertake these strikes. So my message to them would be even now please call them off.”

Talks between the government and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) ended without agreement on Monday night, with the union accusing Health Secretary Steve Barclay of “belligerence” and refusing to discuss pay.

RCN general secretary Pat Cullen said nurses would not be getting “an extra penny” on their demands of an above-inflation pay deal.

Up to 100,000 nurses in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will walk out on Thursday and on Dec 20, prompting the government to put the army on standby. AFP

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