LONDON (Reuters/AP) -- Around 5,000 train drivers across almost a quarter of Britain’s rail network went on strike on Saturday, as part of a campaign for higher pay after the country’s inflation rate hit its highest in 40 years.
The 24-hour strike organized by train drivers’ union ASLEF is the second significant industrial action this week on Britain’s rail network, after 40,000 members of the RMT and TSSA unions - which represent other rail staff - held a major strike on Wednesday.
Soaring inflation - consumer price inflation is currently 9.4% - and patchy wage rises have exacerbated labor tensions across sectors including postal services, health, schools, airports and the judiciary.
The rail strike was expected to cause “significant disruption” all day Saturday and on Sunday morning, according to Network Rail, which runs Britain’s rail infrastructure.
Almost all services on seven of the country’s 34 train operators were cancelled, including regional networks for southeast and eastern England as well as long-distance lines linking London with southwest England, northeast England and Edinburgh.
Britain’s train services are mostly run on a for-profit basis by foreign state-owned rail companies which receive short-term contracts and operating subsidies from the government. Those subsidies ballooned as passengers stayed home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
ASLEF General Secretary Mick Whelan said the franchise agreements typically only provided for 2% pay rises for drivers.
“At this time of the cost of living crisis we believe this Catch-22 situation can’t go on,” Whelan told BBC radio.
Steve Montgomery, managing director of rail operator First Rail and chair of the industry-wide Rail Delivery Group, said operators would give bigger pay rises only if train drivers agreed to changes in working practices that would save money.
“We’re not saying to people ‘work longer hours’, but to be more productive within the hours they currently have,” he said.
ASLEF plans to hold another one-day strike on Aug. 13.
The drivers’ walkout followed four daylong strikes since June by railway cleaners, signalers, maintenance workers and station staff in a dispute over pay, jobs and working conditions.
Unions accuse the Conservative government of preventing train companies — which are privately owned but heavily regulated — from making a better offer, something the government denies.
Writing in the Times of London, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps accused “militant union leaders” of resisting necessary reforms and “taking the taxpayer for a ride, but not in the way they were meant to.”
Whelan said workers just wanted a “realistic” pay raise.
“For the last three years, we’ve had no pay rises,” he told the BBC. “The people we
work for will be making hundred of millions of pounds and giving money to their shareholders.”
More strikes are planned for August, in what is 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 last week amid delays caused by Brexit and a shortage of French border officials.