Strikes stop Britain as half a million workers protest over cost of living

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LONDON — The long-running dispute over pay and working conditions came to a head on Wednesday as hundreds of thousands of British workers took part in what organizers said was the biggest day of action in a decade.

Around 500,000 workers joined the mass action, with teachers, train conductors, university lecturers, bus drivers, civil servants and airport workers staging a walkout. The huge show of discontent comes at a time of rampant inflation and years of stagnant wage growth, adding to pressure on the long-ruling Conservative government, which is grappling with a cost-of-living crisis.

Up to 500,000 British workers, including teachers, took action over pay and working conditions on February 1, Britain’s biggest day of civil service action in decades. (Video: Reuters)

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

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The Daily Mail described the strikes as “a general strike in all but name”. The Sun tabloid called the disruption ‘Lockdown 2023’.

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The day of concerted action is just the latest in what British newspapers have dubbed the “Winter of Discontent”, named after a period between 1978 and 1979 marked by widespread redundancies.

British academic Catherine Barnard, who specializes in labor law at the University of Cambridge, said Britain has the toughest strike laws in Europe and disgruntled workers have to jump through many hoops before they can go on strike, and they will get tougher.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has introduced legislation establishing a “minimum level of service”, allowing employers to provide basic provision during a strike in areas such as health, rail, education, fire and border security.

However, various workers have been on mass strike since last summer, and since then the scale of the strikes has only escalated.

Workers say they are underpaid and overworked, and their real wages have not kept up with rising costs for years. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, for example, teachers in the middle of the pay scale saw their wages drop by 9 to 10 percent in real terms between 2010 and 2022. The government says they can’t pay teachers what they’re asking for because it would fuel inflation, which is already over 10 percent.

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Several unions say there is no sign of a breakthrough in pay talks and have vowed to take further action in the coming weeks.

Several strikes are planned for February and beyond. Newspapers have calendars and interactive tools to help readers find out what strikes are happening in their area and when. Nurses are expected to join the picket lines again next week. 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 Stephen Fielding, emeritus professor of political history at the University of Nottingham. “He’s basically tried to retread Margaret Thatcher and it’s not working.”

When Sunak became prime minister last year, he positioned himself as the responsible economic chief, the man who would clean up his predecessor’s economic mess and, he hoped, get back on track in time for the next election. must take place by January 2025. Like Margaret Thatcher, the former Conservative leader who is still in the party, Sunak’s government is not backing down from the unions and has introduced new “anti-strike” legislation.

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“That’s what Thatcher did, she busted the unions and passed legislation, but it was a very different time and she had the wind in her sails,” Fielding said.

There is no such wind in Sunak. His government has been dogged by accusations of “collusion” and the economic outlook is bleak. The International Monetary Fund predicted on Tuesday that the United Kingdom will be the only major world economy to enter recession in 2023.

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

Fielding said today’s strike waves are much wider than those of the late 1970s. “It was an intense but relatively short few months. It’s been going on since the summer. And it’s spreading to parts of the economy that weren’t affected in the 70s. It’s not just bin men. It’s university professors, doctors, firefighters, ambulance drivers , everyone is on strike.


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