As many as half a million workers are on strike across Britain on Wednesday, closing schools, canceling university lectures and bringing most of the rail network to a standstill in what unions say will be the biggest day of walkouts for over a decade.
Teachers, university staff, train drivers and civil servants – including staff responsible for checking passports at airports – are striking in large numbers over wages and working conditions as living standards continue to decline. plunge after years of below-inflation increases.
Meanwhile, the Trades Union Congress, which represents 48 unions, is holding more than 75 rallies across the UK to protest a government bill it says is an “attack” on the right to strike. The bill would require basic service levels to be maintained in the fire, ambulance and railway sectors in the event of a walkout.
The escalating strikes come just weeks after the government tried to resolve wage disputes to end the worst wave of industrial unrest the country has seen in decades. Many public sector workers have been offered 4% or 5% raises for the current financial year, with the annual inflation rate at 10.5%
Up to 300,000 teachers are due to strike on Wednesday, marking the first of seven days of strike action through February and March by the National Education Union, the sector’s largest union. The strikes will affect around 23,400 schools, or about 85%, in England and Wales, many of which will be closed in whole or in part.
Wednesday also marks the start of strikes by 70,000 members of the University and College Union (UCU), which will hit 150 UK universities for 18 days in February and March, affecting 2.5 million students.
Meanwhile, more than 100,000 members of the Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents civil servants, will strike over wages, pensions and job security in 123 government departments and agencies.
And only about 30% of train services are expected to operate on Wednesday, according to British rail company Rail Delivery Group, which warned in a statement on its website that the disruption could extend into the rest of the week as many trains will not. not. be in the correct repositories.
The strikes will weigh on an already slow economic growth. The UK is likely to be the only major economy to fall into recession this year, having recorded one of the highest growth rates among advanced economies last year, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The IMF has slightly raised its forecast for global growth, due to the reopening of China and an improvement in financial conditions as inflation begins to subside.
Over Britain, however, the background became darker.
Research director Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas said this was due to rising energy prices, declining productivity due to employment not returning to pre-pandemic levels and the high inflation driving up interest rates and mortgage costs.
The IMF expects inflation to remain above 8% in the UK this year, compared to 4.6% in advanced economies and 6.6% globally. He sees the UK economy contracting by 0.6% in 2023, a drop of 0.9 percentage points from his October forecast.
An economic slowdown and persistent inflation will deepen a cost of living crisis that is plaguing thousands of workers, as wages do not keep up with rising prices.
The average salary increase of 5% for teachers this year is insufficient, especially since it follows a decade of “salary erosion” which has led to a “recruitment and retention crisis”, a NEU Deputy General Secretary Niamh Sweeny told CNN.
According to the union, the pay of experienced teachers has fallen by 23% since 2010 once inflation is taken into account. Support staff, such as teaching assistants, have seen their wages fall by 27% in real terms over this period, and some may earn more working in their local supermarket than in education, according to Sweeny.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Education replied: “The strike is very damaging to children’s education, especially following the disruption children have suffered over the past two years.
Sian Elliott, policy officer at the Trades Union Congress, told CNN the solution to the wave of strikes was simple: “All we need to resolve the current disputes is just to offer a better wage deal.” .
Yet rather than resolve the pay disputes, the government “rushed” an anti-strike bill through parliament without proper scrutiny or impact assessment, she added.
In a sign that industrial unrest could worsen further, Britain’s firefighters voted to strike for the first time since 2003. The firefighters’ union has given the government until February 9 to make an improved pay offer.
Nurses and paramedics will begin a new wave of walkouts next week.
— Olesya Dmitracova contributed reporting.