France and the UK face strikes during the peak holiday travel season | Daily News Byte

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The UK and France prepared to disrupt holiday travel, as British border-control staff went on strike and French rail workers walked off the job.

Border-control agents in the UK launched more than a week of cost-of-living protests amid rising inflation and the UK’s worst industrial dispute in a decade.

Meanwhile, in France, train conductors went on strike on Friday demanding higher wages, threatening to leave thousands of Christmas commuters stranded. National railway SNCF said it had to cancel two out of every five fast trains this weekend, forcing 200,000 passengers to change their plans. The strike will continue till Monday.

As British border-control agents walked off the job on Friday, the country’s nursing union also set new dates for industrial action in January, as the economic and political turmoil that has rocked the nation this year looks increasingly likely to continue into 2023.

Around 1,000 passport control officers are taking strike action at six UK airports between December 23 and December 26 and plan to do so again between December 28 and December 31 over pay demands.

The UK government told Heathrow Airport to suppress demand from passengers flying into the hub in preparation for a border-control staff strike.


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Holly Adams/Bloomberg News

Nurses went on strike for the first time in the UK last week.


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Vuk Valcic/Zuma Press

The airport unrest is the latest strike action to hit Britain. Nurses went on strike for the first time last week, and the Royal College of Nurses said on Friday that its members would strike again on January 18 and 19.

“Once again, we have offered to negotiate,” the RCN said in a statement. “Once again ministers refuse to get round the table. Once again, the nursing staff is left with no choice.

Postal workers, ambulance paramedics, driving instructors and train operators are among those who are or will be out of a job this week, arguing that pay rises have not come close to the 10.7% inflation rate.

The British strike is the latest in a string of protests and industrial action in several European countries this year, as higher prices, particularly of energy, cut into consumer incomes. Europe is suffering from the fallout from the war in Ukraine and Russia’s decision to largely cut off cheap gas supplies to the continent.

In recent months, French teachers, railway and health workers have taken to the streets in dozens of cities across the country, in a sign of the political unrest facing President Emmanuel Macron. Mr Macron’s plan to raise the country’s retirement age has also angered opposition lawmakers and unions, who are planning protests next month.

On Friday, SNCF pledged to raise wages and hire new staff after French rail unions agreed to withdraw their strike notice over the New Year’s weekend.

Train conductors in France went on strike on Friday, threatening to leave thousands of Christmas tourists stranded.


Photo:

Nomi Olive/Reuters

Officials at Heathrow Airport, Britain’s busiest entry point, said on Friday that there were no flight cancellations as a result of the strike, nor were there long lines at passport checkpoints. Passengers and others using the airport reported a smooth passage through the border on social media.

In preparation for the strike, the government asked Heathrow to suppress demand for passengers flying into the hub. Heathrow last week tried to ease pressure on border control to halt ticket sales on most inbound flights on strike days with airlines including British Airways and Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd.

However, the head of the union representing passport control workers said it was prepared for further strikes for “many, many months”.

“The government needs to understand that we can’t all be wrong,” Mark Serwotka, head of the Public and Commercial Services union, told the BBC in reference to another strike. “We know there is a crisis in this country, an in-work poverty crisis.”

The UK government has said that overpaying its workforce risks prolonging high inflation and impoverishing all workers in the coming years.

“We all know that the main economic challenge we all face right now is inflation,” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on Friday. “I want to make sure that we reduce inflation and that part of it is responsible when it comes to setting public sector pay.”

However, government employees have borne the brunt of the effort to curb inflation. According to the UK Office for National Statistics, private sector pay was 6.9% higher in the three months to October than a year earlier, while government pay rose just 2.7%.

The government also wants unions to stick to increases awarded by independent pay panels, which were largely settled before a sharp rise in inflation following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and await those panels’ ruling on new pay deals in the coming months.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said at a Brookings Institution event that the central bank is ready to slow the pace of rate hikes as soon as its December meeting. Photo: Valerie Plesch/Bloomberg News

Pressure is mounting from lawmakers in Mr. Sunak’s Conservative Party who worry that his position is unsustainable. Public opinion is in favor of giving NHS workers better pay deals, poll shows. Nurses in particular have seen a 5% drop in real wages over the past decade, and many have left the profession, according to government data.

Two-thirds of Britons support NHS nurses in their fight with the government, while 63% back ambulance staff, 58% back firefighters and 50% back teachers, according to a YouGov poll between 16 and 19 December.

A near-empty concourse at the Gare du Nord railway station in Paris on Friday.


Photo:

Nathan Lane/Bloomberg News

Write to Paul Hannon at paul.hannon@wsj.com and Benjamin Katz at ben.katz@wsj.com

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