Half a million Britons take part in biggest walkout in 12 years

LONDON, ENGLAND – JANUARY 16: Protesters from different unions attend a rally against the British government’s plans to restrict the ability of public sector workers to strike outside Downing Street on January 16, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Guy Smallman/Getty Images)

Guy Smallman | Getty Images News | Getty Images

LONDON — More than half a million British workers are due to go on strike until Wednesday, with unions in various sectors clashing over pay and working conditions.

They include 300,000 teachers in England, who the National Education Union says have taken a pay cut of at least 23% in real terms since 2010; teachers from two unions in Scotland; around 100,000 civil servants in over 100 departments, including driving instructors, coastguards and Department for Work and Pensions staff; 70,000 university workers, including professors and security personnel; and about 100,000 train drivers.

Such widespread strike action has not taken place since a dispute over public sector wages in 2011, when more than a million workers reportedly took industrial action.

Tens of thousands of schools will be closed or partially closed, travel and other services will be halted, while workers set up hundreds of picket lines and hold rallies.

Demands vary from union to union, but include anti-inflationary wage increases, including to address historic wage declines in real terms; pension reform; and no reduction in layoffs. The NEU says teaching is in a ‘crisis’ as staff are being pushed out of the profession and demanding a pay rise above inflation.

The protests will also focus on a bill passed in the lower house of parliament on Tuesday that aims to enforce minimum service levels in certain sectors, with some workers facing the possibility of being fired if they refuse to work when necessary on strike days. .

Most unions hold several strike days, with some, like rail, lasting several months. Wednesday was coordinated by the unions as a day of mass walkouts to send a message.

It follows strikes by National Health Service paramedics and nurses, who are not only demanding a pay rise but say labor shortages have made working conditions nearly impossible.

Postal workers were also on strike and firefighters voted for a future strike.

Average pay excluding bonuses increased by 2.7% in the public sector between August and October, with inflation exceeding 10%. That compared to a 6.9% wage increase in the private sector, according to national statistics.

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Although inflation has started to ease slightly, it remains at historic highs and acute in areas that have the greatest impact on low-wage workers. Grocery price inflation hit a record 16.7% in the four weeks to Jan. 22.

The Trades Union Congress called the bill “wrong, impractical, and almost certainly illegal.”

During Wednesday’s widespread strike, a government spokesperson told CNBC: ‘Since these strikes have been threatened, the government has been preparing to do all it can to mitigate any disruption caused and we have put in place place extensive contingency plans.”

“Of course, the best mitigation would be for the union bosses to call off the planned strikes, keep talking and come to an agreement.”

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