Railway workers are short of money – prepare for a tsunami of strikes


In a largely silly speech last week, Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, warned railway workers they risked losing their jobs if they went on strike. We all know what he meant; anything that bolsters Britain’s newly discovered middle-class love affair with working from home would further undermine the railway, rendering it commercially unviable.

The threat is no less hollow, and Lynch knows it. Shapps seemed to relish the prospect of a confrontation with the railway workers, the better to divert attention from the government’s growing catalog of policy errors. As a supposed hammerhead of the unions, Shapps also hopes to bathe the government in Thatcherite respectability. Nothing else about the Johnson administration is Thatcherite, so that will have to do.

Yet the fact is that no modern economy can operate successfully without a functioning public transport system. The railroad is still struggling, all these decades later, to recover from the “Beeching Cuts”, which axed large parts of the network in the 1960s and all but ended the transnational connectivity that the government is now halfheartedly trying to relaunch as part of its “upgrade” program.

If Mr. Shapps is seriously considering another round of cuts, it shows a remarkable ignorance of the building blocks necessary for productive economic growth.

Even driverless cars would not replace the mass transit system provided by rail. RMT or not, the government must find a way to make the railways work.

With low inflation and low interest rates, living standards have improved slightly for most of the past three decades. Unemployment has been low and falling mortgage costs have more than offset sluggish real wage growth. But inflation is picking up again and, for the first time in 30 years, mortgage costs are rising again. For many people, the ferocity of the current pressure is an entirely new experience.

It is true that there are still plenty of jobs – more vacancies, in fact, than there are unemployed. At the top of the income ladder, there is a desperate battle for talent, with employers offering steep pay rises to attract and retain staff.

There are also plenty of jobs down the ladder that used to be filled by migrant labor from Eastern Europe, but for which the appetite of locals is limited. In many cases, salaries are simply not enough to pay the ever-increasing bills.

The once-thriving middle ground is also squeezed. This poses big problems for Downing Street as it struggles to hold the line on public sector wages. If there is public money to spend, many Tory MPs would prefer it to be spent on tax cuts rather than public sector pay. But from teachers to doctors, public sector workers have none of it. The government clearly needs to act urgently on its 2019 manifesto commitment and legislate to ensure minimum rail service during industrial action.

Yet RMT’s Mick Lynch is only the forerunner. There will be many more who will seek to emulate his activism in the years to come. After all, it seems to work. Welcome to the strike linked to Great Britain.

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