On this Thursday, the eve of the penultimate weekend of the school holidays, only every fifth train ran through the country. Another SNCF strike in France? No, this time it’s taking place on the other side of the English Channel and it’s a lot more extraordinary than at home. Indeed, the UK is witnessing its largest strike movement in decades. All of London’s transport network comes to a virtual standstill on Friday, while another day of rail strikes is slated for Saturday. Dockers at the port of Felixstowe (east England) begin an eight-day strike on Sunday.
They are said to be followed by postal workers, employees of the telecom operator BT, Amazon retailers, garbage collectors and even criminal defense lawyers. After the summer, the movement could expand to include education and health officials. The reason: a major purchasing power crisis. “In recent months, the number of people employed in the public sector has increased by only 4%, while inflation has exceeded 10%. It hasn’t been this high in 40 years,” explains 20 Minutes Sarah Pickard, Lecturer in Contemporary British Civilization at the Sorbonne Nouvelle.
“People are scared”
This general strike, initiated by the railroad workers, far from generating hostility, inspires sympathy, as an entire population is ultimately in the same boat. They “are people like me, we’re all trying to make a living and make ends meet. I have all the sympathy in the world for her,” a traveler at Leeds train station in northern England told a local AFP journalist.
Inflation particularly affects the fully privatized energy sector, whose prices have risen much more than in France, but also food. “The humble sections of the population and also the middle classes are affected. And falling into a permanent crisis will be even worse this winter,” predicts Sarah Pickard, while the Bank of England estimates that inflation in the country will top 13% in October. “People are afraid and the unions are showing a malaise that we have not known for a long time. »
The English forwards’ obstacle course
Something the British hadn’t seen in a long time either was a general strike. “The last massive nationwide strike was in 2011,” recalls Sarah Pickard, co-author of British Civilization. Schools, hospitals and local governments then rested to express their dissatisfaction with the pension reform. We are a long way from the Paris demonstrations, but it must be said that we do not strike as often in the UK as we do in France. On the one hand because “it is not cultural” and on the other hand because “Margaret Thatcher passed a law that makes strikes particularly difficult and has by no means abolished it, but this law has been tightened by the current government,” says the expert.
Spontaneous strikes are totally forbidden, it is first necessary to hand in a ballot, then to organize a union vote, “knowing that the vote of those absent will be counted as a vote against”. Despite this crossroads, the unions have managed to organize what appears to be the largest movement of rail strikes since 1989, at the end of the Thatcher years. It remains to be seen whether this strike will lead to negotiations.
The movement could “go on indefinitely”
RMT union general secretary Mick Lynch has warned that without a collective agreement, the movement could “go on indefinitely” and even extend to “every sector of the economy”. For Sarah Pickard, the unions have the opportunity to put pressure on the government because with Brexit “the country is lacking the workforce”. Some strikes have been averted after satisfactory offers of compensation, notably at a Heathrow airport fuel company or British Airways ground staff.
The outcome of this crisis will also depend heavily on the election of the future prime minister. But between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, “both very right-wing and quite anti-popular,” according to Sarah Pickard, it’s not certain the unions will be happy. “Also, the two simply want to ban strikes in essential public services.” The tone is set.