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In addition to the rail strike, Britain braces for strikes in other industries


For much of this week, train travel has been impossible in parts of Britain. Rail workers in England, Wales and Scotland have gone on strike. They oppose plans to cut jobs and favor better pay. This is one of many strikes the country may face this summer. Willem Marx reports.

WILLEM MARX: Alastair Webster planned his summer vacation for months. He hoped to travel to the picturesque Cotswolds region yesterday by train. But in the end, he got stuck on several buses.

ALASTAIR WEBSTER: Doesn't seem to be a direct bus service from Oxford to there because we would have got the train. So I think we have to just sort of improvise.

MARX: Despite the inconvenience and added cost, Webster says he supports the rail strikes.

WEBSTER: If you're working in these sectors and if you're a railway worker, you just get year after year of shrinking pay, really, in real terms.

MARX: He and his wife are among the millions employed by the government or government-supported industries like the railway, watching their real-world salaries shrink. U.K. inflation is at its highest level in decades, forcing living costs to rise faster than wages. And across a variety of professions, the push for more pay could prompt a summer of discontent here. Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted to Parliament this week his government was doing its best to alleviate this cost-of-living crisis.


PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: Actually, Mr. Speaker, under this government, 5 million public sector pay - public sector workers are getting a pay rise, Mr. Speaker. We've increased the living wage by a thousand pounds. We've increased universal credit so that people get a thousand pounds more.

MARX: The pandemic and Brexit have upended Britain's jobs market, with many sectors struggling to recruit or retain new staff, among them aviation.

WAYNE KING: The pressure on our members is exceptional, and the hours our members are working are excessive. And it is deeply unfair, and it was completely avoidable.

MARX: Wayne King is a coordinating officer for Unite, the union that represents many staff at U.K. airports like London Heathrow. He says his union warned that cutting staff during the pandemic could cause problems when restrictions finally lifted.

KING: They didn't listen to us, and we are where we are with it. And I think it's going to be a very disruptive and disrupted summer because there just aren't enough people there to deliver the services to get people away.

MARX: Air operators acknowledge they're struggling to find, train and win security clearance for new workers, and that's led to recent chaos at U.K. airports, according to Rob Griggs, policy director at advocacy group Airlines UK.

ROB GRIGGS: Some airports, it was security staff. Some airports, it was baggage handlers. In some airports, it was a lack of staff, air traffic control. In some airports, it was the airlines who struggled with crew. So because it's a complex ecosystem, all those pieces need to work together.

MARX: This summer at London Heathrow, some of those pieces may not work at all without better pay after hundreds of British Airways staff voted this week to strike. Also this week, a union representing almost half a million teachers threatened to strike, too, unless their pay rises in line with inflation, currently running above 9%. Niamh Sweeney is the deputy general secretary of that union, the NEU.

NIAMH SWEENEY: Teacher pay is at the lowest level in 40 years when compared to comparable earnings, even in the public sector. And teachers have seen their real terms earnings reduced by between 17% and 20% in the last 10 years.

MARX: The legal profession has its own wage woes. Defense attorneys plan to strike for as long as it takes to end low government-mandated pay that they say is gumming up the justice system and driving talent away from their profession. In response to so many complaints from so many different sectors, the government says its spending must be kept down. But with inflation running rampant, many British workers simply want their wages to keep up. For NPR News, I'm Willem Marx in London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Willem Marx
[Copyright 2024 NPR]

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