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Britain endures a summer of strikes amid soaring inflation and cost of living crisis

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By Euronews  with AFP, AP
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Aslef, Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen members are pictured on a picket line at Willesden Junction station, Aug. 13, 2022.
Aslef, Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen members are pictured on a picket line at Willesden Junction station, Aug. 13, 2022.   -   Copyright  AP Photo

Rail workers, postal workers, dockers: the UK is experiencing its worst industrial action in decades, as the country faces a summer of strikes. 

Workers across multiple sectors are seeking substantial pay raises to offset fast-rising inflation rates and soaring prices for food and fuel. 

On Thursday and Saturday, tens of thousands of rail workers are being called off work by their unions, in the latest instalment of the industry's biggest strike in 30 years, which began in late June.

The state-owned network operator Network Rail, has warned that only one in five trains will run, calling on Britons to travel "only if absolutely necessary".

On Friday, the whole of London's transport network will be at a virtual standstill, and will remain highly disrupted throughout the weekend.

On Sunday, dockers at the port of Felixstowe in the east of England - the country's largest freight port - will begin an eight-day strike, threatening to bring much of the country's freight traffic to a standstill.

Everywhere it's the same story: employees are demanding pay rises in line with inflation, which reached 10.1% in the UK in July and could exceed 13% in October, according to Bank of England forecasts.

Purchasing power is being eaten up by price rises at record speed, which "demonstrates the vital need (...) to defend the value of workers' pay,", said Sharon Graham, general secretary of Unite, one of the country's largest unions, in a statement.

More industrial action across various industries

More than 115,000 British postal workers have planned four days of walkouts between the end of August and the beginning of September, and some 40,000 employees of the telecoms operator BT will continue their first strike in 35 years.

Action is planned or has taken place by staff at Amazon's warehouses over pay increases amid the cost of living crisis; criminal trial lawyers - in a dispute about government funding and fees; and by refuse collectors in cities across the UK over low-ball pay increase offers. 

"The employers are doing their best to help their staff through this period," the CBI employers' union said in a statement this week. "But a large majority cannot afford to increase wages enough to keep up with inflation," it said.

Some strikes have recently been averted at the last minute, however, following offers of pay that were deemed satisfactory.

This was the case with employees of a refuelling company at Heathrow airport, who threatened to disrupt traffic and finally called it off.

British Airways ground staff, who were demanding at least the restoration of wages cut by 10% during the pandemic, accepted a 13% pay rise and called off strike action.

Rail workers are continuing their strike on Thursday because negotiations with the sector's multitude of private operators have reached an impasse. They have also rejected a pay offer from Network Rail which they accuse of being conditional on large-scale redundancies.

Transport minister Grant Shapps, who has refused to get directly involved in the talks, is being singled out by the organisations for not giving the companies a sufficient mandate to negotiate.

Another reason for union anger is that the government has just changed the law to allow the use of temporary workers to replace strikers.

The famous London luxury department stores' Harrods was "the first employer to threaten its staff" with the use of this law, while some employees are currently voting on whether to strike, according to Unite.

The action could last beyond the summer, and also extend to civil servants in education and health, where the union has slammed "miserable" pay offers of 4%.