No end in sight for strikes in crisis-hit Britain

FILE PHOTO: Rail workers that are members of the ASLEF union go on strike in London

By Farouq Suleiman and Natalie Thomas

LONDON (Reuters) - The worst wave of strike action to grip Britain in decades could persist deep into 2023 with no side willing to back down, a union leader said on Thursday, underlining the scale of the challenge facing Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

A day after Sunak pledged to tackle the country's problems, rail workers again took to picket lines as part of a week-long strike that has paralysed the network, while daily reports document the mounting pressure on hospitals, where patients routinely wait for hours and ambulances queue in car parks.

The worst bout of worker unrest since Margaret Thatcher was in power in the 1980s, combined with the return of double-digit inflation, has produced a sense of malaise in Britain, where living standards are falling at their sharpest rate since records began in the 1950s.

Mick Whelan, head of the train drivers' union ASLEF, said it had now become difficult for the government to agree higher pay deals when so many workers across so many sectors were involved.

"Nobody wants to resolve anything because of the impact we'll have elsewhere," he told Reuters at a largely deserted Euston train station in north London during the morning commute.

"We've got so many people out on strike, and so many people suffering, only the government can change it, or a change of government ... We're in it for the long haul."

Nurses, paramedics, border force staff and postal workers have also taken strike action, angered by inflation that is at 40-year highs and touched 10.7% in November. Workers in other sectors are balloting for future action.

LONG HAUL

The strikes follow more than 10 years of stagnant wage growth and the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the government has said it cannot afford to grant public sector workers inflation-matching pay increases.

It urged unions on Thursday to return to talks and said it was willing to have a more transparent process on how wage rises are set, but reiterated that it has to balance any increase with the need to contain inflation and control spending.

The business department also warned it had a duty to protect services, and said new legislation introduced to parliament in the coming weeks would require striking workers to provide a basic service in areas such as fire, ambulance and rail.

That will take time to come into force however, and British opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer, whose party has a double-digit lead over Sunak's Conservatives in the opinion polls, said Britain was in a state of chaos.

Walking across London Bridge, Juliette Maxam, a 53-year-old who works in public relations, said it was difficult not to feel depressed about the state of Britain and the challenge facing the government ahead.

"We definitely need to give people pay rises, but where does that money come from? That's the problem with it," she said.

(Writing by Sarah Young; editing by Kate Holton and Gareth Jones)