The rail strikes happening this week – the biggest in three decades – are likely to affect nearly all of us in some way.
Network Rail workers across the UK are striking on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, with London Underground services joining them on Tuesday.
This means only 20% of the usual services will be running with railway operators encouraging people not to travel on these days.
Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT union, said it had “no choice” over striking after last-minute talks failed to resolve the dispute.
Meanwhile, transport secretary Grant Shapps insisted there was no place for the government in the negotiations, after calling the strikes a ‘huge mistake’.
What feels like a major nuisance to many people who rely on rail travel for their jobs and caring responsibilities, who may have summer socialising in the diary, and in the case of students, GCSE and A Levels exams to take – is the only option left to thousands engaged in industrial action, union members say.
While much of the focus has been on the disruption these strikes are going to cause, striking rail workers and Underground staff are keen to draw attention to low pay, long hours, vulnerable terms and conditions – and the challenging nature of their jobs, particularly in the past two years of the pandemic, when some workers – such as Belly Mujinga – even put their lives on the line.
So why are strikes going ahead?
Workers say they are striking against job losses, stagnant pay, work conditions and threats to their pensions.
Many have taken to social media to express solidarity with each other and share the reasons why they feel this action is necessary.
One railway worker, Jessica Leather, shared her pride in her job on Twitter, before detailing what it involves above and beyond her regular duties: in the past six weeks, she says, she has helped domestic violence victims, stayed with sick passengers well into the early hours, and has dealt with people experiencing mental health issues.
Crucially, she points out, she is fulfilling these duties without any changes in pay, despite the increasing cost of living.
“Tell me I should suck up the pay freeze and have to choose between heating my house and feeding my child this winter. Tell me my job shouldn’t exist. Tell me I’m wrong to strike,” she wrote.
Other rail workers echo her reasoning. Dad-of-three James*, 37, a ticket office clerk and RMT member from Kent says his whole family survives on his single income, which is £30,000.
“I don’t want to go on strike,” he tells HuffPost UK. “I want to go to work and assist our passengers. But the strike is the only action we can take.”
James says he is already living in fuel poverty and has started cycling to work to save on fuel costs – which only increases the time he’s away from home.
“My wages no longer cover the basic needs of my family due to the rising cost of living. At my last calculation, my wages have become almost 17% less than they were in real terms due to inflation. Things are only getting worse.”
He also points out that with cuts to ticketing officers, passengers will be left less safe and with no one to speak to, contest fares and delays with, or report incidents to when travelling.
‘People don’t appreciate the full extent of our roles’
TFL staff member Harry*, 35, from London, a customer service assistant and another RMT member, says proposed cuts to 600 jobs in the TFL workforce would be a catastrophe.
“That’s just the first wave of potential job cuts,” he tells HuffPost UK. “They’re also attacking conditions, imposing new working arrangements on two departments and reviewing our pension scheme with a view to reducing employer overheads.
“Cutting frontline station staff will make our working lives harder, and make the service we provide to passengers less accessible and less safe. So our strike isn’t only for our own jobs, it’s for the quality of the service we provide.”
He adds: “The fundamental message of the strikes is that workers shouldn’t have to pay for the financial fallout of a crisis we didn’t cause and, in fact, risked our lives to work through! – via cuts to our terms and conditions, and a pay freeze in the case of national rail workers.”
Harry says that during strikes, staff can be vilified for their choices and actions, as though their jobs are easy and they should simply get on with it.
“People don’t appreciate the full extent of what our role entails,” he says. “We’re not just there to provide general info and customer service, we’re there to help passengers with particular access needs, to respond to safety incidents, and monitor security around the station. There’s a vital safety element to what we do.”
Shift patterns are already “quite punishing,” he adds. “My earliest start is 05:15am, my latest finish is 00:50pm. Workers in other grades also work lots of night shifts. If the Underground cuts jobs, our rosters will have to be redesigned and they’ll inevitably be skewed even more towards these ‘extreme’ shifts.”
‘We either fight these attacks or we give in’
Margaret*, 55, who works at the Oxford Street tube station, who has worked with TFL for 25 years, says there is already a lack of staff available to passengers, and further cuts would be disastrous.
“We are stretched to the limit with our staffing levels as it is,” she says. “Take hundreds more away and the consequences will be dreadful, especially for safety, for disabled passengers, for anyone else who needs help. The company also plans to change working conditions for the worse, and is considering options for attacking our pensions. We either fight these attacks or we give in.”
It might all be a colossal disruption, but that’s kind of the point, is the message. Some of those striking hope workers in other industries and sectors who are facing similar attacks from bosses are inspired to make the same stand.
Meanwhile, Margaret invites a longview on the disruption: “When people find themselves complaining about not being able to find staff when they need them, or about a service disruption because maintenance levels have been slashed, they might regret complaining about our strike. We are trying to prevent that.”
*Names have been omitted to offer anonymity.