21 June 2022 18:03:17 IST

A management and technology professional with 17 years of experience at Big-4 business consulting firms, and seven years of experience in high-technology manufacturing, Rajkamal Rao is a results-driven strategy expert. A US citizen with OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) privileges that allow him to live and work in India, he divides his time between the two countries. Rao heads Rao Advisors, a firm that counsels students aspiring to study in the United States on ways to maximise their return on investment. He lives with his wife and son in Texas. Rao has been a columnist for from the year the website was launched, in 2015, and writes regularly for BusinessLine as well. Twitter: @rajkamalrao

Britain’s rail strike is set to to cripple the country’s economy

A sign states some platforms are closed during the industrial action at Waterloo railway station in London, Tuesday, June 21, 2022. | Photo Credit: AP

A fixture of India’s struggles during the oppressive years under the British Raj has moved back to England. This week’s organised rail strike in the U.K by the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers’ union (RMT) is designed to cripple the island nation two years after it exited the EU.

The disruption will cause more than 50,000 workers to walk off their jobs to protest inadequate wage increases to combat higher living costs. The strike is strategically planned to hit commuters multiple times for maximum impact twice during the week and once on Saturday. The last such organised strike was in 1989.

If British Airways employees had struck work, passengers would be impacted, but the effect would be minimal. They could fly Virgin Atlantic, Ryan Air, or several other carriers eager to pick up the slack. But services like the railways or highways or electric and water utilities are built by governments (or, as in the UK, in public-private partnerships) as monopoly institutions by design. Infrastructure doesn’t lend itself to competition. It is abhorrent and a violation of human decency that workers in monopoly organisations should strike.

Commoner’s plight

British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the disruption would cause “misery” and force hospital patients to cancel appointments. Students taking exams would face extra pressures of changing their travel plans. “By carrying out this action, the RMT is punishing millions of innocent people instead of calmly discussing the sensible and necessary reforms we need to make to protect our rail network,” he said.

Anyone who has traveled in the UK and mainland Europe knows how critical the railway infrastructure is to orderly transportation. The three-tier system of subways for connecting inner-city neighbourhoods (the famous London Tube), metro rail to connect far-flung suburbs, and long-distance trains to connect cities is typical across much of Europe. Subways and metro rail also connect to other forms of transport, such as airports and ferries.

A passenger arriving at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, intending to visit the Eiffel Tower as their first stop, has many options. The RER B train leaves from terminal 1 every 15 minutes. The fast train skips stops, but the slow train stops at each station enroute. The passenger gets off the train at Gare du Nord, Chatelet-Les Halles, or St Michel — all major subway interchanges from which underground trains flash you to the famous landmark. CDG’s Terminal 2 is also a station for France’s superfast long-distance TGV trains. A passenger from Marseille or Nice in southern France can go anywhere in the world by taking the TGV to terminal 2 and boarding a connecting Air France flight.

Frequent schedules, safe and clean trains, and affordable fares are the hallmarks of such expansive architecture and envy of the free world. Gasoline is prohibitively expensive in Europe and parking is nearly impossible to find in this densely-packed region of the world, so world-class public transportation is a boon to citizens. Besides, it is a great tool to help combat climate change. 

The RMT strike organisers know how vital their service is to ordinary British citizens. The disruption is intended to hurt those with little to do with the conflict between rail workers and their management. This is no different from a criminal act of taking someone hostage and demanding a cash ransom. But labour sympathisers would be shocked at the suggestion that organising a strike is criminal.

Economic pains

Maybe, but the impact is just as bad as people will have to scramble to find inconvenient last-minute transportation options. The irony is that the strike organisers are complaining about inflation but are willing to inflict economic pain on the average British traveler by forcing them to drive or take a taxi to their destination at a prohibitive cost.

If inflation is RMT’s complaint, RMT should direct its ire at the British government’s single-minded determination to enact economic and energy sanctions against Russia. In truth, it is the British economy that is suffering as a result of Western sanctions. On February 24, the day of Russia’s Ukraine invasion, one pound fetched $1.34.

This week, the pound yielded just $1.22, having lost nearly 9 per cent of its value. In contrast, the Russian Ruble has dramatically strengthened, by almost 35 per cent, against the dollar. On February 24, it traded at 85 Rubles to the dollar. This week, one needed just 55 Rubles to buy a dollar.

President Ronald Reagan adopted a zero-tolerance policy against strikes that impacted average citizens. On August 3, 1981, 13,000 air-traffic controllers went on strike after negotiations with the federal government to raise their pay and shorten their workweek proved fruitless. Reagan ordered them not to strike; inflation at the time was a whopping 10.3 per cent. The workers ignored the order and struck work anyway.

Two days later, Reagan fired 11,350 controllers and brought military controllers to civilian roles. Air traffic delays plagued the country for two months, but the government slowly began recruiting replacement workers. Labour leaders called Reagan’s actions extreme, but he had drawn a red line. There has been no ATC strike since.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson does not have the same tools as Reagan. We live in a social media-dominated world. Even the mention of a threat of retaliation against RMT by the embattled Johnson, who just survived a no-confidence vote within his party, would be politically suicidal. With no solution in sight, expect life in Britain to come to a standstill.