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Discontented British workers launch season of strikes

Passenger trains operated by Southern sit at Selhurst train depots as strikes continue on the Southern rail network, in London, Britain, Dec 16, 2016. — Reuters

Passenger trains operated by Southern sit at Selhurst train depots as strikes continue on the Southern rail network, in London, Britain, Dec 16, 2016.

LONDON: With some trains at a standstill and threatened disruption to flights and postal services, a string of strikes and threatened walkouts are taking the cheer out of the British festive season.

Hundreds of thousands of commuters were Friday left stranded for the third day this week after staff on Southern Rail, which runs trains from southern England into London, stopped work in a long-standing row over conditions.

It rounds off a year of action that began with an unprecedented walkout by British doctors.

The train strikes meanwhile heaped pressure on London's already overcrowded Tube and bus network and hit train services to one of the capital's main airports, Gatwick.

Air travellers also face the prospect of disruption on Christmas Day and Boxing Day after British Airways cabin crew voted to strike over pay.

The airline slammed the Unite trade union, saying the "calculated and heartless action is completely unnecessary and we are determined that it will fail".

On Friday, Virgin Atlantic pilots hinted at their own possible strike action, while workers at the state-owned Post Office have announced five days of stoppages from Monday.

The chaos caused by the rail strike has sparked strong criticism of Southern Rail's management and the government, as well as the unions.

One MP from Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservative party has proposed tougher laws on taking industrial action on critical public infrastructure.

The government earlier this year passed a law requiring unions to have a ballot turnout of at least 50% before striking.

"We've already passed legislation to provide people with better protection from undemocratic industrial action, and we would keep under review how these measures are working in practice," the prime minister's spokeswoman said.

'Taking on second jobs'

The rail dispute revolves around the company's plan to change the role of train guards, giving drivers sole responsibility for operating the doors.

Southern Rail has promised the changes will not lead to job losses and guards will be freed up to help passengers, but the unions say the move puts passenger safety at risk.

The stand-off may spread to other rail services after the RMT union issued a warning about similar plans to introduce "driver-only operation" onto other lines.

Meanwhile at British Airways, almost 2,000 cabin crew, or more than one in seven, voted to strike in a long-running dispute over pay.

The Unite union says so-called "mixed fleet" cabin crew who joined the firm after 2010 are struggling with wages which are so low that some sleep in their cars between flights.

"Significant numbers of crew are taking on second jobs, many go to work unfit to fly because they can't afford to be sick," said Matt Smith, a Unite regional officer.

'Attack' on jobs

Those able to bypass the transport strikes may yet face another challenge to their festive preparations next week as staff at the Post Office walk out for five days in the runup to Christmas.

Andy Furey, assistant secretary at the CWU union, said the action was partly in protest at plans to privatise the service, which he called "an unprecedented attack" on pensions and job security.

Another strike planned for next week by delivery drivers for retail giant Argos was called off after a deal was reached in their dispute over pay.

Bookmakers are now seeking to profit from workers' discontent, on Thursday publishing odds about the next sector to go on strike.

Top of the list are doctors, who staged a series of unprecedented strikes this year over working conditions and pay in the state-run National Health Service (NHS), followed by bus drivers, police and fire fighters.

"Glorious post-Brexit Britain is doing its best to give those French strikers a run for their money, and with Brits up and down the country experiencing misery we may as well try and make a few quid off the next group to join to the picket line," said bookmakers Paddy Power.

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