On the Picket Line

Rail workers strike in U.K. for pay raise, against job cuts

By Pete Clifford
August 15, 2022

MANCHESTER, England — Tens of thousands of rail and telecommunication workers struck across the U.K. at the end of July, refusing to accept below inflation pay and attacks on their conditions. Retail inflation here is running at 11%, a 40-year high.

Five thousand train drivers, members of the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, struck for a day at seven rail companies July 30. Further strike action is scheduled for Aug. 13 involving drivers from nine companies. Some 40,000 rail workers, members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, struck for better pay and against job cuts July 27 and plan further strike days Aug. 18 and 20.

Latest to join the actions were some 40,000 engineers and call center workers at British Telecom, organized by the Communication Workers Union. They struck July 29 and Aug. 1. Some 115,000 Royal Mail postal workers, also members of the CWU, have voted 97.6% in favor of strike action.

“We can’t afford to strike, but we can’t afford not to strike,” Mark Gray, chair of Scotland No. 1 CWU branch, told the Militant at the picket line at Portlethen, near Aberdeen, Scotland, July 29.

“Why should we pay for inflation?” Ian Tomlinson, a striking British Telecom worker, told this worker-correspondent, when I joined the CWU’s picket line here, along with four other rail workers. “We have pickets up at 17 locations all over Manchester. We’re solid.”

These actions mark a change. In 2018 some 39,000 workers were part of union disputes and just 33,000 in 2017, the lowest figures on record. In the last week of July alone, more than 85,000 workers joined union actions.

Reacting to this development is a feature of divisions riling the governing Conservative and opposition Labour parties. Conservative Elizabeth Truss, front-runner to replace Boris Johnson as prime minister after he quit last month, threatens to ramp up anti-union measures. She proposes to cut union strike pay by taxing it, extend from two weeks to four the notice unions must give for a strike and impose other restrictions.

Not to be outdone in defending the bosses’ interests, Labour leader Keir Starmer said his party “doesn’t go on picket lines,” and sacked shadow Transport Minister Sam Tarry for joining the July 27 RMT action.