Workers in UK down tools as inflation crushes earnings

Railway and postal staff, dockers too. Britain’s workers are striking in vast numbers as decades-high inflation erodes the value of wages.

The train network faced further heavy disruption this week in major walkouts which follow the sector’s biggest strike action for 30 years. Tens of thousands of staff are expected to strike over two days, leaving a skeleton service that will hit holidaymakers and commuters.

London’s underground railway is set to be affected by a strike on Saturday, ahead of an eight-day stoppage by dockers at Felixstowe, Britain’s largest freight port.

“We will continue to do whatever is necessary to defend jobs, pay and conditions during this cost-of-living crisis,” Sharon Graham, head of major union Unite, said this week.

Official data this week showed UK inflation at a 40-year high above 10%, as soaring food and energy prices hurt millions of Britons.

The situation is set to worsen under a new prime minister, as Boris Johnson prepares to step down.

The Bank of England has forecast inflation to top 13% this year, tipping the British economy into a deep and long-lasting recession.

“This record fall in real wages demonstrates the vital need for unions to defend the value of workers’ pay,” Graham said, while hitting out at suggestions, including from Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey, that pay rises were fuelling inflation.

“Wages are not driving inflation,” she insisted ahead of the latest UK inflation data that showed rocketing food prices were the main factor behind last month’s spike.

Inflation has soared worldwide this year on rising energy prices, fuelled by the invasion of Ukraine by major oil and gas producer Russia.

Some proposed strikes have been halted after unions and companies agreed pay deals at the eleventh hour. But while British Airways ground staff and refuellers at Heathrow have scrapped proposed walkouts, other sectors are holding firm.

More than 115 000 British postal workers plan a four-day strike from the end of this month. Telecoms giant BT is facing its first stoppage in 35 years and walkouts have recently taken place or are planned by Amazon warehouse staff, criminal lawyers and refuse collectors.

Major UK business lobby group the CBI this week acknowledged workers’ ongoing “struggle with rising costs like energy prices” and said employers were “doing their level best to support staff”. It also claimed, however, that “the vast majority” of companies “can’t afford large enough pay rises to keep up with inflation”.

Regarding the part-privatised British railway sector, unions accuse Transport Secretary Grant Shapps of not helping to resolve the impasse.

Shapps is part of the Conservative government that recently amended a law to allow agency staff to fill gaps caused by strikes, further angering the RMT railway union.

Analysts are forecasting sector-wide stoppages to continue as inflation keeps rising. It comes as teachers and health workers hint at walkouts, should they not receive acceptable new pay deals. — AFP

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