LONDON — Britain was crippled on Tuesday morning by its largest railway strike in three decades, halting trains across the country, throwing travel plans for tens of millions of Britons and visitors into chaos, and setting off what union leaders warned could be the beginning of a summer of labor unrest.
With last-ditch talks between the main union and the railway operator collapsing on Monday night, most trains ground to a halt for the first of three days of strikes. Most train service will also likely be halted on Thursday and Saturday, with delays and disruptions rippling across the system for the entire week.
In London, workers in the Underground system went on strike Tuesday in a separate wage dispute, threatening to bring much of the capital to a halt as well. Buses continued to run, and there was some skeleton train service.
The strikes are a major test for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who called on the unions to compromise on their wage demands at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has kept ridership and ticket revenue well below normal levels.
So far, the government has refused to intervene directly in the talks, which are between the unions and Network Rail, a company that manages the country’s railway system, as well as the privatized train operators.
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But with soaring food and fuel prices and wages that are failing to keep pace, Mr. Johnson will confront restive workers in multiple industries. Teachers, airline employees and criminal defense lawyers are among those who are threatening to walk off the job.
The main railway union, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, known as the R.M.T., is demanding a pay rise in line with the cost of living. At a combative news conference on Monday, Mick Lynch, the union’s general secretary, blamed the “dead hand” of the government for the impasse.
A day earlier, Mr. Lynch told Sky News that a deal should have been done in December, when the retail price index, a measure of inflation, was at 7 percent. Since then, the annual rate spiked to 11.1 percent in April, the highest since 1982. The latest wage increase offered by the train operators is far lower than that.
In remarks released by Downing Street on Monday night, Mr. Johnson blamed the R.M.T., saying it wanted to pass unacceptable fare increases on to passengers and preserve work practices that date back to the Victorian era.
“The unions are harming the very people they claim to be helping,” the prime minister said. “By going ahead with these rail strikes, they are driving away commuters who ultimately support the jobs of rail workers, whilst also impacting businesses and communities across the country.”
“Too high demands on pay will also make it incredibly difficult to bring to an end the current challenges facing families around the world with rising costs of living,” Mr. Johnson said. “Now is the time to come to a sensible compromise for the good of the British people and the rail work force.”
Mr. Johnson’s Conservative Party faces critical parliamentary elections on Thursday for two seats that have come open, and the strikes quickly became a political football. The opposition Labour Party accused the Conservative government of failing to break the deadlock. The Conservatives said Labour was cheering on a walkout that will inconvenience millions of people and impede Britain’s recovery from the pandemic.
In Wakefield, one of the two districts holding elections, a major local bus company has already been on strike for several days.
Britain is locked in the same economic vise of rising prices and lagging wage growth that is afflicting countries around the world. When adjusted for inflation, pay is declining at the fastest pace in more than a decade — a problem that is likely to worsen as prices continue to rise and spread to more goods and services.
The disruption of global supply chains, following the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has pushed up prices for oil, natural gas, wheat and fertilizer. Fuel and food prices are rising at rates unseen in decades. In Britain, the squeeze on incomes has forced a reluctant government to offer financial aid to households.
Economists worry that the cost of living will constrain consumer spending, endanger fragile businesses and throw the economy into a recession. Britain’s economy showed signs of weakness in the first three months of the year.
At the same time, policymakers are concerned about rising prices becoming embedded in the economy, as companies increase their prices because of higher costs and workers demand higher wages.
Andrew Bailey, the governor of the Bank of England, said earlier this year that there needed to be “restraint” in wage bargaining, otherwise inflation would get worse, especially among high earners.
Moreover, industries have lost workers to illness or other jobs during the pandemic, leading to serious staff shortages. In London, Heathrow and other airports are asking carriers to cancel flights during the summer travel season because of a shortage of baggage handlers and other workers.
Employers are competing for staff with bonuses and wage increases, but workers are not feeling the benefits as inflation eats away at those extra gains. Other unions, including those representing teachers and National Health Service workers, are threatening to go on strike if wage agreements do not keep pace with inflation.