By JILL LAWLESS
LONDON (AP) — Britain’s railway network ground to a crawl on Wednesday after 40,000 staff walked off the job in a dispute over jobs, pay and working conditions. Train companies said only about a fifth of services across the country were due to run.
The 24-hour strike by cleaners, signalers, maintenance workers and station staff comes a month after the country’s most disruptive rail walkout in three decades brought trains to a halt across the U.K at the start of the summer holiday season.
The dispute centers on pay, working conditions and job security as Britain’s railways struggle to adapt to travel and commuting habits changed — perhaps forever — by the coronavirus pandemic. There were almost 1 billion train journeys in the U.K. in the year to March, compared to 1.7 billion in the 12 months before the pandemic, and rail companies are looking to cut costs and staffing after two years in which emergency government funding kept them afloat.
Negotiations aimed at resolving the dispute are deadlocked. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers says employers’ latest pay offer falls short amid soaring inflation — currently at 9.4% — and the worst cost of living crisis in decades.
It accuses the Conservative government of preventing train companies from making a better offer. The government says it is not directly involved in the dispute pitting the union against privately owned train-operating companies and the government-operated Network Rail infrastructure firm.
RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said the union “will continue to negotiate in good faith, but we will not be bullied or cajoled by anyone.”
“The government need to stop their interference in this dispute so the rail employers can come to a negotiated settlement with us,” he said.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps accused union leaders of “trying to cause as much disruption as possible to the day-to-day lives of millions of hardworking people around the country.”
He said the strike had been “cynically timed” to disrupt a semi-final of the European women’s soccer tournament on Wednesday in Milton Keynes, north of London, and the opening of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham on Thursday.
The union staged three one-day strikes last month that stopped services across much of the country.
More strikes are planned for Saturday, when train drivers are set to walk out, and on three days in August.
It’s turning out to be a summer of travel disruption, in Britain and around the world. Air travelers in many countries are facing delays and disruption as airports struggle to cope with staff shortages and skyrocketing demand for flights after two pandemic-hit years.
Truck drivers and Britons heading off on holiday by ferry faced hours-long waits at the port of Dover over the weekend amid delays caused by Brexit and a shortage of French border officials.
Britain’s Conservative government has put blame for the rail strikes squarely on the union, and has changed the law to make it easier for employers to recruit contract staff to do strikers’ jobs.
Polls suggest public opinion is split, with many people expressing sympathy for the rail workers.
“The workers have a right to strike,” said commuter Fabrice Kabamba at London’s Waterloo station. “As an employee myself, struggling to pay bills, I can sympathize with them.”