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UK unions float general strike as inflation soars

As wages struggle to keep up with rampant inflation, striking workers are shutting down essential services in the U.K. The industrial unrest has been further inflamed by promises from both prime ministerial candidates to curb the ability to strike.

LONDON (CN) — The United Kingdom is on course for a wave of industrial unrest later this year, after both candidates seeking the country’s top job of prime minister have pledged to introduce legislation that would undermine the ability to strike.

In response to ongoing strikes on the country’s railways, both Conservative politicians left in the running to replace Boris Johnson – former Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss – have committed to passing laws creating a minimum service requirement on critical infrastructure, thus preventing trade unions from organizing full strike action.

“We need tough and decisive action to limit trade unions’ ability to paralyze our economy," Truss, who is the frontrunner in the prime ministerial contest, said in a statement. "I will do everything in my power to make sure that militant action from trade unions can no longer cripple the vital services that hard-working people rely on.”

Truss – who has overtly modeled herself in the image of Margaret Thatcher – will be hoping that picking a fight with unions will help to further burnish her Thatcherite credentials in the eyes of the Conservative Party membership, who will determine the contest’s winner. Thatcher’s hardline approach to strikes in the 1980s led to the hobbling of the British trade union movement, and the closure of much of the country’s heavy industry.

Truss’s trailing opponent Sunak has similarly pledged to restrict industrial action, all but guaranteeing government conflict with unions once the new administration is in place in September.

British trade union leaders reacted with fury to the threats from the Conservative leadership hopefuls this week. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers led the chorus of anger among organized labor. General Secretary Mick Lynch, who has become something of a household name in recent weeks due to his leadership of the ongoing rail strikes, told the BBC that the pledges were “a direct attack on one of the main pillars of our democracy.” Speaking of Truss, Lynch called her an “extremist” who stands for the “oppression of working people.”

“One of the founding bases of every democracy is the right for a trade union to freely organize and take appropriate action. She is seeking to make effective industrial action illegal,” he continued. “What [Truss] wants is the trade unionists to surrender, so we have a low-paid, cowered workforce in this country.”

Lynch suggested a general strike of all organized labor would be a proportionate response to the plans. His sentiments were echoed by trade union leaders across various sectors of the British economy, including unions not traditionally thought of as militant. Sharon Graham, general secretary of Unite – the U.K.’s second largest union – tweeted that Truss had “declared war on the trade union movement and working people," stating her union “will not bow to threats and any attempt to place us outside of the law will be met with fierce, prolonged resistance.”

The row comes amid deteriorating industrial relations as a cost of living crisis deepens across Britain. Railway workers are currently striking over a pay offer which in real terms will see them accepting reduced wages. They are also opposed to the closure of ticket offices and forced layoffs, among other issues. So far four days of nationwide strikes have taken place, affecting 80% of rail services in the country. The 40,000 workers involved make it the largest strike seen in the U.K. since 1989.

But with inflation hitting a 40-year high of 9% in the U.K. this month, it is not just railway workers who are taking action against the eroding value of their wages. More than 40,000 telecommunication workers began strike action on Friday, and a further 115,000 postal workers have voted in favor of walkouts to take place on as yet undecided dates. Both the National Education Union and British Medical Association are set to ballot for major strikes, whilst the Criminal Bar Association representing barristers have been taking strike action since April. Aviation staff, refuse workers and bus drivers around the country have also been involved in industrial action so far this year.

The potential for widespread industrial unrest in an already deteriorating economic environment presents an immediate headache for the incoming prime minister. But it is not just the government for whom the strikes have presented a political problem.

The opposition Labour Party got itself tangled this week after a transport spokesperson was sacked for attending a picket line in solidarity with striking rail workers. The Labour Party is historically the political wing of the British trade union movement, but current leader Keir Starmer is seeking to distance himself from organized labor.

The sacked member of Parliament, Sam Tarry, initially took a diplomatic line over the affair. However, as anger over the sacking spread throughout the party and trade union movement, Tarry became more forthright.

“I think it’s a historic and fundamental mistake to ban Labour MPs from being on picket lines," he told reporters on Friday. "It shouldn’t happen, never happen. It has caused a complete car crash in a week when we should have been talking about what we are going to do to raise wages for the British people.”

Tarry added that is was trade unions who were “showing true leadership at the moment. They are the people standing up for British workers.”

The only previous general strike in the U.K. was in 1926, though it was eventually called off after the government successfully deployed strikebreakers to keep the economy running. The last major cross-sectoral strike action in the country took place between the end of 1978 and start of 1979 – a period now popularly known as the Winter of Discontent. The dispute ended in settlement with the government.

Trade unions in the U.K. are today significantly less powerful than in these previous eras, though membership numbers have undergone something of a resurgence in recent years. However, with no end to high inflation in sight, real wages deteriorating across the economy, and both major political parties struggling to assert themselves amid a cost of living crisis, the coming months are set to indicate just how far contemporary organized labor in Britain is willing – or able – to go to set the political agenda.

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