Up to half a million UK teachers, civil servants, train drivers and university professors have quit their jobs to demand better pay and working conditions in the biggest coordinated strike for a generation , with wages failing to keep pace with runaway inflation.
About 300,000 people on strike Wednesday are teachers, according to the Trades Union Congress.
Teachers in schools across England and Wales have formed picket lines as they demand higher salaries during protests that have divided public opinion.
Some locals in cars honked their horns and raised their fists in solidarity as they drove past while others questioned teachers about their motives.
Learning and working from home reminiscent of COVID-19 lockdowns returned to many households as school doors were closed and most trains were stopped.
According to a YouGov poll late last year, 59% of those polled favored the strike in the education sector.
The National Education Union said around 23,000 schools would be affected on Wednesday, with around 85% full or partial closures.
Former Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn, who joined strikers in London, called for a “fairer tax system”.
“This country cannot afford the levels of inequality that we have,” Corbyn told Al Jazeera.
“There are more billionaires in Britain than ever before,” he said. “Many people, billionaires and millionaires, made a lot of money during COVID-19. They weren’t taxed for it.
Jack, a striking teacher, told Al Jazeera it was “almost impossible” to help every child who needs help under current working conditions.
“Teachers aren’t just teachers,” he said. “They are social workers. They are nurses. These are all sorts of different professions within the job itself. And from an emotional point of view, it’s not sustainable to teach in the long run.
Other workers also on strike range from museum workers and London bus drivers to coastguards and border officers manning passport control booths at airports.
Other actions, in particular on the part of nurses and paramedics, are planned in the days and weeks to come.
Union bosses say that despite some pay rises – such as a 5% government offer to teachers – wages in the public sector have failed to keep up with soaring prices, which effectively means that workers suffered a pay cut.
The Trades Union Congress says the average public sector worker is 203 pounds ($250) a month worse off compared to 2010 when inflation is taken into account.
Al Jazeera’s Neave Barker, reporting from the UK Parliament, said teachers are demanding big pay rises to beat “soaring levels of inflation which currently sit at around 10.5%, the highest in the group of advanced economies of the G7”.
“A lot of teachers are saying, ‘Look, we can’t afford the 2023 awards given that a lot of us are still earning what we were earning ten years ago,'” he said.
On Monday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told public health workers he met during a visit: “I wish, nothing more would make me happier, than to wave a magic wand and you pay all much more.”
“An important part of our ability to get inflation under control and halve it is to make sure the government is responsible for its borrowing because if it gets out of control it makes it worse, and it’s about making the reasonable and fair wage settlements.”
Education Minister Gillian Keegan said on Wednesday higher pay rises would further fuel inflation and the government’s response remained unchanged.
Mary Bousted, president of the National Education Union, gave the government a deadline.
“We want it to be a one day strike, and what I would say to the government is that you now have 27 days before the next strike in England, which is a regional strike in the North West,” he said. Bousted told Sky News. “It’s 27 days where you can sit down and really negotiate with us. We are ready to do it.
“We need to find a way to solve the workforce crisis in our schools,” she said. “We need to find a way to fix long-term teacher pay, which has declined so drastically over the past 12 years, to a much worse extent than almost any other profession.”