Can lessons from the past help resolve the rail dispute?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson chairs a Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street, London. Picture date: Tu

Prime minster Boris Johnson warned passengers to be prepared for further travel chaos during a Cabinet meeting - Credit: PA

On a day when the country's rail network ground to an almost halt during the biggest rail strike in a generation, prime minster Boris Johnson warned passengers to be prepared for further travel chaos. 

Many commuters were left stranded and unable to get to work as around 40,000 members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union at Network Rail and 13 train operators walked out in a dispute over pay, redundancies and conditions. 

This disruption also impacted local train journeys, with Greater Anglian advising people to only travel when necessary.

It left students unable to get to exams, workers unable to get to their jobs and travellers unable to get home. 

But as passengers face similar disruptions on Thursday and Saturday, Mr Johnson warned they must be ready to "stay the course" and urged rail bosses and unions to agree on a package to safeguard the future of the industry. 

During a Cabinet meeting the prime minister said that without fundamental changes to the way the system operates, rail firms risk going bust and passengers face ever-higher prices that could ultimately lead to them abandoning train travel.

He added that he believed that the strikes were "so wrong and so unnecessary", highlighting the support offered to the industry during the pandemic and the "colossal" investment in rail infrastructure. 

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He also warned the need for the country to "stay the course". 

“To stay the course, because these reforms, these improvements in the way we run our railways are in the interests of the travelling public, they will help to cut costs for farepayers up and down the country,” the prime minister said. 

Meanwhile, union bosses have blamed the government for cuts and below-inflation wage proposals. 

The union is asking for a pay rise of at least 7pc to offset the rising cost of living.

They say that employers have, however, offered a maximum rise of 3pc on condition of job cuts and changes to working practices. 

The request for a minimum 7pc pay rise could lose the unions sympathy with the public, especially at a time when many are struggling with rising living costs without pay increases. 

Looking back at a mass strike that took place 50 years ago over pay may help all sides of the dispute to learn some lessons. 

The Battle of Saltley Gate, which took place in 1972, saw coal miners across the country striking due to pay disputes at a time of high inflation.

The miners wanted a pay rise of between 35–47pc, but were offered only 7.4pc. 

During the strike, other workers including factory workers, came out in support of the miners. 

Although the strikers won this dispute, many have argued that it contributed to more strikes the following year that led to a three-day working week. 

In the long-term, the strike action arguably led the Conservative government in the 1980s having a more adversary attitude towards strikes. 

Ultimately, during further miners strikes in the 1980s prime minister Margaret Thatcher won the dispute and, over time, many of Britain's mines were shut, resulting in decades-long decline in many former mining towns. 

Although the present is not the 1970s, avoiding the chaos of 50 years ago by sitting around the table and coming to a compromise may be the best outcome for bosses, workers and passengers.