Strikes bring Britain to a halt as half a million workers protest cost of living


LONDON — A long-running dispute over pay and conditions erupted on Wednesday, with hundreds of thousands of British workers taking part in what organizers called the biggest day of industrial action in more than a decade .

Around 500,000 workers joined the day of mass action, with teachers, train drivers, university professors, bus drivers, civil servants and airport staff staging a strike . The huge show of discontent comes amid runaway inflation and years of stagnant wage growth, and puts further pressure on the long-serving Conservative government struggling with a cost-of-living crisis.

Downing Street warned Britons that the strike would cause “significant disruption”. Thousands of schools have been closed – around 85% of schools in England and Wales are believed to be affected – and most trains in England were not running.

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‘Walkout Wednesday’ is how the Daily Mail described the strikes, calling them a ‘general strike in all but name’. The Sun tabloid called the disruption “Lockdown 2023”.

The day of coordinated action is just the latest in what British newspapers have dubbed “the winter of discontent”, named after the 1978-79 period characterized by widespread shutdowns.

Catherine Barnard, a British academic specializing in labor law at the University of Cambridge, said Britain had the toughest strike laws in Europe, with disgruntled workers having to clear many hurdles before they could go on strike — and they’re about to get tougher.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has introduced legislation that would impose a “minimum level of service”, allowing employers to apply a basic degree of cover in areas such as health, railways, education, fire and border security during strikes.

Yet various workers have been on strike en masse since last summer – and since then the scale of the strikes has only intensified.

Workers say they are underpaid and overworked, and that their real wages for many years have not kept up with rising costs. Teachers in the middle of the salary scale, for example, saw their salaries fall by 9 to 10% in real terms between 2010 and 2022, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The government says it cannot pay teachers what they ask for because it would fuel inflation, which is already over 10%.

Several unions say there is no sign of progress in wage negotiations and have pledged to take more action in the coming weeks.

More strikes are planned throughout February — and beyond. Newspapers have calendars and interactive tools to help readers know what strikes are in their area and when. Next week, nurses are expected to join the picket lines again. When they went on strike in December, it was the first time in their union’s 106-year history.

“It’s not going the way Rishi Sunak had hoped,” said Steven Fielding, emeritus professor of political history at the University of Nottingham. “He basically tried a Margaret Thatcher retread, but it didn’t work.”

When Sunak became prime minister last year, he cast himself as the responsible manager of the economy, the person who would clean up his predecessor’s economic mess and, he hoped, get things back on track in time for the next elections, which must be held by January 2025. Like Margaret Thatcher, the former Tory leader still revered in the party, Sunak’s government is not backing down from the unions and has introduced new legislation ” anti-strike”.

“Thatcher did, she overthrew unions and passed laws, but it was a very different time and she was riding high,” Fielding said.

Sunak has no such wind. His government has been dogged by allegations of “witchcraft” and the economic outlook is bleak. The International Monetary Fund predicted on Tuesday that the UK will be the only major global economy to slip into recession in 2023.

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The public is divided over the strikes, with strong support for nurses, paramedics, firefighters and, to a lesser extent, teachers. Driver examiners, university staff and civil servants have less support. YouGov research found that support for action was not correlated with disruption caused, but with workers’ perceived contribution to society and whether they were underpaid.

Fielding said today’s continuous strike waves are much more widespread than those of the late 1970s. “It was intense, but a relatively short few months. It’s been going on since summer. And it’s intensifying in parts of the economy that weren’t hit in the 1970s. It’s not just the binmen. They are university professors, doctors, firefighters, paramedics, everyone is on strike.

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