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Londoners struggle as strike hits rail network

London, Sept. 25 (Reuters): Millions of Londoners struggled to work today as a 24-hour strike by transport workers brought the British capital’s underground rail network to a standstill.

Workers on the “Tube”, the world’s oldest subway system, began the first of two strikes last evening after a long-running pay dispute. Police were called to patrol bus stops as a safety precaution as crowds of people tried to board packed buses.

Many commuters had left home hours early to get to work on time. The capital’s streets, congested at the best of times, were gridlocked as frustrated travellers took to their cars.

The strike follows a series of walkouts this year by public sector workers who want Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labour government to loosen the purse strings.

Union chiefs and London Underground blamed each other for the strikes, but London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, said he supported the workers’ right to strike. The stoppages will cost businesses millions of pounds as workers turn up late or not at all. A series of one-day strikes last year was estimated to have cost several hundred million pounds. Today’s action follows a 24-hour strike in July, when 90 per cent of trains were out of service.

Just 15 out of 600 train drivers turned up for work, and no trains were moving at all during the morning rush hour, according to London Underground.

“There are no trains running,” a spokesman said. “We’re not expecting services to return to normal until tomorrow morning.” The strike is the first of two by members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) and the train drivers’ union Aslef to protest against an imposed three per cent pay rise. The second is planned for October 1. RMT general secretary Bob Crow and Aslef leader Mick Rix joined the picket line at a north London underground station.

Mayor Livingstone, whose Left-wing views once earned him the nickname of “Red Ken,” said he backed the worker’s right to strike. “If you have got a management that won't negotiate, the only thing a workforce can then do is strike,” he told BBC radio. Responsibility for negotiating and settlements will pass to Livingstone next year.

He said he would seek to end annual pay negotiations in favour of a three to four-year pay deal. London Underground insisted its pay rise — imposed on workers after it was rejected by the unions — was sufficient.

Bob Mason, human resources director at London Underground, said the dispute had been to arbitration three times and that he would not give in to fresh demands. “London Underground, and indeed London as a whole, cannot continue to be held to ransom by the rail unions year in, year out,” he said.

Milan ceasework

In Milan, strikers brought buses, trams and metros to a halt sending commuters into their cars and causing jams on motorways and in the city centre. “The response to the strike has been massive,” Alberto Cassandra, spokesman for Italy’s CGIL union said. “First data suggests there has been a 98 per cent average turnout.”

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