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British Workers Go on Strike Against Labor Government

Europe: The walkout comes as unions cut their support, accusing Blair's party of neglecting them.

July 18, 2002|ROBYN DIXON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — Britons endured disruptions in services ranging from garbage collection to libraries, schools and the London Underground on Wednesday in strikes that underscored the unhappiness of workers with the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The one-day strike by municipal workers was their first nationwide walkout since 1979, when a wave of stoppages during the "winter of discontent" toppled a Labor government and ushered in the Thatcher era. But despite the inevitable comparisons, Wednesday's strikes had a limited impact on the average person.

A separate 24-hour strike by workers in the Underground that began at 8 p.m. Wednesday was likely to be the more disruptive, causing massive inconvenience for the 3 million commuters who use "the tube" daily. Workers scurried to complete their homeward commutes by 8 p.m., and traffic chaos was predicted for today.

The strikes came as several big unions affiliated with Blair's Labor Party slashed their contributions to the party, claiming that the government had turned its back on its traditional supporters.

Municipal workers were demanding a 6% raise, while local governments had offered 3%. The unions argued that municipal workers' salaries lagged behind those of other public-sector workers. Employers countered that they were offering a generous raise that was twice the rate of inflation.

The three unions behind the municipal workers strike--the Transport and General Workers Union, the GMB general workers union and UNISON -- claimed that 750,000 workers stayed home Wednesday. But the Employers' Organization for local government gave a lower estimate. It said 600,000, about half the workers involved in the pay dispute, took part. It estimated that one-quarter of state schools closed, while unions claimed that 70% were forced to shut down.

Unions said a classroom assistant earns $18,750 a year and a school cook about $11,700.

"The issues in the dispute are not just about pay," said Bill Morris, general secretary of the TGWU. "It's about respect and it's about dignity in the workplace."

John Edmunds, an official with the GMB, said on British Broadcasting Corp. radio that many of the lowest-paid workers were women.

"There's a very big problem of low pay in local government. Over a quarter of a million people, many of them women, earn less than 5 pounds [$7.80] an hour," he said.

The strike comes days after the Blair government announced plans to increase spending by the equivalent of $95 billion in the next three years, mostly on education, housing, defense and crime fighting. But the government sidestepped the labor dispute Wednesday, arguing that it was between local governments and their employees. It said it had provided the local governments with generous funding.

The strike by the Underground workers was expected to bring the subway to a halt today, although management pledged to run what services it could.

The Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers union organized the strike. The RMT, Britain's largest rail union, claimed that government plans to partially privatize the Underground rail network would jeopardize safety. Polls conducted by the BBC and the union indicate that many people fear that safety could be compromised because serious accidents occurred after the privatization of the national railways.

For the rail union, the issue is not just about safety. It is also political.

The RMT last month cut its financial contribution to the Labor Party from the equivalent of $172,000 to $31,000 because of anger over the government's refusal to renationalize the railways and plans to partially privatize the subway. Tens of thousands of union members also quit the party.

In March, Britain's main postal workers union, the Communication Workers Union, announced that it would cut funding to the Labor Party by $780,000 over the next three years because of plans to cut 15,000 employees.

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