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U.K. facing massive train strikes, in new blow to Liz Truss’s government

Pedestrians walk past the closed gates of Euston Station on Saturday, as strike action by railway staff restarts. (Niklas Halle'n/AFP/Getty Images)

LONDON — Massive train strikes are expected to disrupt the lives of millions of people in the United Kingdom this week, compounding an already challenging political environment for Britain’s new prime minister, Liz Truss.

The unions representing train conductors and other rail workers, who are set to go on strike on Oct. 5, 6, 7 and 8, as well as next Monday in Scotland, say there has been too little progress in long-running negotiations with the government over pay raises, layoffs and working conditions. And they argue that those issues are more acute as Britain faces a historic cost-of-living crisis. The Bank of England expects inflation to hit 11 percent this month.

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Tensions between the unions and Britain’s political leadership have grown increasingly public. Union leaders say their problems are worse since the newly elected Truss, who replaced Boris Johnson last month, proposed economic plans that set the pound on a dizzying downward spiral last week and sparked panic in financial markets.

A walkout Saturday was billed as the country’s largest rail strike in decades — timed to coincide with the ruling Conservative Party’s annual conference in Birmingham. Wednesday’s strikes will take place when Truss is expected to speak there.

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Train conductors from 13 rail companies — including Chiltern Railways, North Eastern Railway and London Overground — plan to strike on Wednesday over unmet demands “for pay which keeps pace with the cost of living,” one of two unions organizing the strike said. The Heathrow Express, which takes travelers from central London to Britain’s busiest airport, will also not run on Wednesday.

Some workers at Great Western Railway will strike between noon on Thursday and the end of the day Friday, their union said. It is one of Britain’s largest train operators and connects London with Wales and the southwest of England.

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Rail workers are not the only ones striking. Truss has been prime minister for only a month, but already her government has had to deal with the fallout of large-scale strikes across industries, from transport to trash collection and lawyers — all related to pay and symptomatic of a deeper unease within the British economy.

Inflation in Britain has hit 9.9 percent — 4.5 times higher than the Bank of England’s target. It is expected to reach 11 percent in October, putting more pressure on households already struggling to pay for rent, food and utilities. While inflation is soaring globally, Britain has been hit particularly hard. Rising consumer demand and supply chain bottlenecks have pushed prices up, and the war in Ukraine is multiplying the cost of gas and electricity, according to the British Parliament.

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Truss’s announcement in late September of a plan for the economy hinging on big tax cuts primarily for the wealthy contributed to a massive devaluation of Britain’s currency that forced Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng, her finance minister, to abandon plans to abolish the top rate of income tax, which they said had become a “distraction.”

Truss has been a vocal critic of unions and strikes. In late July, when she was running to replace her scandal-plagued predecessor, Boris Johnson, Truss told the Sunday Express that one of her first acts as prime minister would be to “curtail the ability of trade unions to cause persistent dismay and disruption to our daily lives.”

As part of the budget announcement, Kwarteng told lawmakers the government would push for new laws forcing train operators to maintain a minimum level of service during strikes and requiring unions to put pay offers from the government to their members for a vote.

On Saturday, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) said in a news release that it had a “positive meeting” with Truss’s secretary of state for transport, Anne-Marie Trevelyan. But it said “nothing has concretely changed” and added that Kwarteng’s “threat to impose further restriction on the right to strike has inflamed members’ feelings even more,” leading to the strike.

“The government must change course,” it said.

If negotiations are not successful, union leaders have hinted that the strikes could extend into the Christmas period. “The way things are, we’re going to have to get creative,” RMT Assistant General Secretary Eddie Dempsey told the Mirror on Saturday.

Karla Adam contributed to this report.

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