U.K. rail strike brings transit chaos, unions clash with Boris Johnson

Last-minute talks Monday couldn’t prevent the strikes, which union bosses say will be followed by more labor action on the railways and across other sectors.

Network Rail, which runs the country’s rail system alongside private train operators, is offering a 3% pay rise, with more promised if the unions agree to new working practices, including the use of drones to inspect broken rails.

The Conservative government says it is not involved in the talks but has warned against big pay rises and blamed the union for refusing to modernize.

Johnson was scathing in his reaction to the strikes, accusing the union of “driving away commuters who ultimately support the jobs of rail workers, whilst also impacting businesses and communities across the country.”

The public appears divided over the issue. A survey from the polling company YouGov earlier this month showed around half of those questioned opposed the action, while just over a third supported it.

Leo Rudolph, a 36-year-old lawyer who walked to work, said he would become more disgruntled the longer the dispute holds.

“This isn’t going to be an isolated occurrence, right?” he told Reuters. “I will certainly be getting more frustrated every time this happens.”

For some, the strikes are reminiscent of the 1970s, when the country was hit by strikes from public sector and private sector workers from across different industries. It culminated in what a tabloid dubbed the “winter of discontent” — a phrase borrowed from Shakespeare’s “Richard III” — when strikes left trash piling up on the streets and bodies unburied.

Lynch said Tuesday that his union’s walkout could signal the start of a similar wave of action: Teachers, medics and waste disposal workers are considering strikes in the coming months. Criminal barristers, who still in court wear the wig and gowns of the 17th century, this week agreed to strike over cuts to government payments toward defendants’ legal costs.

Strikes are not uncommon in Britain but union membership has roughly halved since the 1970s, while the labor movement’s power has been heavily curbed by government reforms.

Reuters and Associated Press contributed.