Strikes hold back Britain as half a million workers protest the cost of living


LONDON — A long-running dispute over wages and working conditions came to a head on Wednesday, with hundreds of thousands of British workers taking part in what organizers say was the biggest day of industrial action in more than a decade.

About 500,000 workers took part in the massive day of action, with teachers, machinists, university lecturers, bus drivers, civil servants and airport workers organizing a strike. The huge expression of discontent comes amid rampant inflation and years of stagnant wage growth, putting further strain on the long-reigning Conservative government grappling with a cost-of-living crisis.

Up to 500,000 British workers, including teachers, went on strike on February 1 in Britain’s largest union strike in decades. (Video: Reuters)

Downing Street warned the British that the strike would cause “considerable disruption”. Thousands of schools were closed – around 85 per cent of schools in England and Wales are said 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 it a “general strike in all but name”. The Sun tabloid dubbed 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 period in 1978-1979 marked by widespread interruptions.

Catherine Barnard, a British academic specializing in labor law at the University of Cambridge, said Britain has some of the toughest strike laws in Europe, with disgruntled workers having to jump through many hoops before they can go on strike – and they’ll get stricter still.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has introduced legislation mandating a “minimum service level”, allowing employers to enforce basic coverage in areas such as health, railways, education, fire and border security during strike action.

Yet several workers have gone on strike since last summer – and since then the size of the strikes has only increased.

Workers say they are underpaid and overworked and their real salaries have not kept pace with rising costs for many years. For example, middle-class teachers have seen their wages fall by 9 to 10 percent in real terms between 2010 and 2022, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The government says they cannot pay teachers what they are asking for because it would fuel inflation, which is already above 10 percent.

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

More strikes are planned throughout 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 be back on the picket lines next week. When they went on strike in December, it was the first time in their union’s 106-year history.

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

When Sunak became prime minister last year, he presented 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 election. to be held in January 2025. Like Margaret Thatcher, the former Conservative leader who is still the largest party in the party, Sunak’s government is not shying away from the unions and has new “anti-strike” policies legislation introduced.

“That’s what Thatcher did, she saw down the unions and passed legislation, but times were very different and she had the wind in her sail,” Fielding said.

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

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The public is divided on the strikes, with strong support for nurses, paramedics, firefighters and, to a lesser extent, teachers. Driving examiners, university employees and civil servants have less support. Research from YouGov found that support for the action correlated not with disruption caused, but with workers’ perceived contribution to society and whether they are underpaid.

Fielding said today’s waves of strikes are much more extensive than those of the late 1970s. “That was intense, but relatively short months. This has been going on since the summer. And it is escalating into parts of the economy that were untouched in the 1970s. It’s not just garbage collectors. They are university professors, doctors, firefighters, ambulance drivers, everyone is on strike.”

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