LONDON (Dispatches) – Tens of thousands of workers walked out on the first day of Britain’s biggest rail strike in 30 years on Tuesday with passengers facing further chaos as both the unions and government vowed to stick to their guns in a row over pay.
Some of the more than 40,000 rail staff who are due to strike on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday gathered at picket lines from dawn, causing major disruption across the network and leaving major stations deserted. The London Underground metro was also mostly closed due to a separate strike.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, under pressure to do more to help Britons facing the toughest economic hit in decades, said the strike would harm businesses still recovering from COVID.
Unions have said the rail strikes could mark the start of a “summer of discontent” with teachers, medics, waste disposal workers and even barristers heading for industrial action as inflation pushes 10%.
Millions of people in Britain, like those across Europe, are seeing their cost of living soar, in part driven by Russia’s war in Ukraine that is squeezing supplies of energy and food staples, including wheat. Prices were already rising before the war, as the global economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic fueled strong consumer demand.
Inflation has soared across Europe on the back of a major rise in energy costs and Britain is not alone in facing strikes.
Action over the cost of living in Belgium caused disruption at Brussels Airport on Monday, while Germany’s most powerful union is pushing for large wage increases and in France President Emmanuel Macron is facing unrest over pension reforms.
Britain’s economy initially rebounded strongly from the COVID-19 pandemic but a combination of labor shortages, supply chain disruption, inflation and post-Brexit trade problems has prompted warnings of a recession.
Germany faces certain recession if already faltering Russian gas supplies completely stop, an industry body warned on Tuesday, as Italy said it would consider offering financial backing to help companies refill gas storage to avoid a deeper crisis in winter.
The EU relied on Russia for as much as 40% of its gas needs before the war - rising to 55% for Germany - leaving a huge gap to fill in an already tight global gas market. Some countries have temporarily reversed plans to shut coal power plants in response.
Global gas prices have sky-rocketed, driving surging inflation higher still and creating a bigger headache for policy makers trying to haul Europe back from an economic precipice.
Germany’s BDI industry association slashed its economic growth forecast for 2022 on Tuesday to 1.5%, revising it down from 3.5% expected before the war. It said a halt in Russian gas deliveries would make recession inevitable.
Russian gas is still being pumped via Ukraine but at a reduced rate and the Nord Stream 1 pipeline under the Baltic, a vital supply route to Germany, is working at just 40% capacity, which Moscow says is because Western sanctions are hindering repairs. Europe says this is a pretext to reduce flows.
Italy, alongside others such as Germany, Denmark, Austria and the Netherlands, has activated the first early warning stage of its three-stage plan to cope with a gas supply crisis.
As the crisis extends across Europe, even a small consumer like Sweden has joined European allies in triggering the first stage of its energy crisis plan.
Sweden, where gas accounted for just 3% of energy consumption in 2020, depends on piped gas supplies from Denmark, where storage facilities are now 75% full. Denmark activated the first stage of its emergency plan on Monday.
The outbreak of industrial action has drawn comparison with the 1970s, when Britain faced widespread labor strikes including the 1978-79 “winter of discontent”.
The strikes come as travelers at British airports experience chaotic delays and last-minute cancellations due to staff shortages, while the health service is teetering under the pressure of long waiting lists built up during the pandemic.