UK rail strikes announced: workers demand action in “summer of discontent”


The Rail Maritime and Transport union has announced that 50,000 of its members will strike on June 21, 23 and 25, bringing much of Britain’s rail network to a standstill.

On the first day of strikes, 40,000 workers from Network Rail and the train operating companies will be joined by 10,000 RMT members on the London Underground fighting plans by Labour Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and the Johnson government to impose £400 million in cuts.

The planned rail strikes will be the largest since 1989, when a series of one-day stoppages ended with the National Union of Railwaymen (the RMT’s predecessor) accepting an 8.8 percent pay rise.

Engineers working to repair the railway on a bridge (Credit: Network Rail)

Around 40,000 rail workers were balloted last month by the RMT, with 89 percent voting to strike off a participation rate of 71 percent. On the London Underground, 94 percent of RMT members voted to strike. ASLEF members voted 99 percent to strike in a ballot that has since expired.

Rail workers are determined to take on the Johnson government. On May 31, the RMT announced it was entering talks via the Johnson government’s Rail Industry Recovery Group—a move that met widespread anger. It reversed its position yesterday, with General Secretary Mick Lynch declaring, “Our union will now embark on a sustained campaign of industrial action which will shut down the railway system.”

The national rail strikes are part of a broader movement as workers come into battle amid the biggest inflationary spiral in 40 years. In Italy, two general strikes took place in April and May, followed by a general strike in Belgium May 31. In Britain, British Airways ground staff are being balloted for strike action over restoration of a “temporary” 10 percent pay cut imposed during the pandemic. Tens of thousands of Royal Mail and BT workers will also vote on strike action for pay—BT’s first national strike ballot in 35 years. Waste collection workers, bus drivers, fuel workers and HGV drivers are all in dispute.

Amid an acute government crisis and with social tensions at breaking point, the ruling class is fearful of the prospect of national rail strikes. “Summer of Misery” was the Financial Times’ description of the rail dispute “at the vanguard of a ‘summer of discontent’”. The Express declared that the prospect of rail and airport strikes “has thrown up concerns of a repeat of the 1978 ‘Winter of Discontent’…” It cited 89-year-old Sir Bernard Ingham, press secretary to former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who warned, “There’s the dangerous situation in Ukraine, the economy is badly damaged by Covid”. Ingham resurrected his former boss’s branding of the miners as “the enemy within”.