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


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

Around 500,000 workers joined the day of mass action, with teachers, train drivers, university lecturers, bus drivers, civil servants and airport staff walking out. The massive show of discontent comes amid rampant inflation and years of stagnant wage growth, and puts more pressure on the long-ruling Conservative government battling a cost-of-living crisis.

Up to 500,000 British workers, including teachers, struck over pay and working conditions on February 1, in the biggest day of industrial action in Britain for decades. (Video: Reuters)

Downing Street warned Britons that the strike would cause “significant disruption.” Thousands of schools are closed – around 85 per cent of schools in England and Wales are said to be affected – and most trains in England are 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 called the disruption “Lockdown 2023.”

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The day of coordinated action is just the latest in what British newspapers are calling the “Winter of Discontent,” named after the 1978-1979 period characterized by widespread stoppages.

Catherine Barnard, a British academic specializing in employment law at the University of Cambridge, says Britain has the strictest laws in Europe, which disgruntled workers have to jump over. through several rings before they strike – and they are set to become more difficult.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak introduced legislation that would mandate a “minimum level of service,” allowing employers to implement a basic level of coverage in areas such as health, rail, education, fire and border security during strike action.

However, many workers have been on strike since last summer – and since then, the scale of the strikes has been growing.

Workers say they are underpaid and overworked, and that their real wages have, for years, not kept pace with rising costs. Teachers in the middle of the pay scale, for example, could see 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 the teachers what they are asking for because it will increase inflation, which is already over 10 percent.

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Several unions said there was no sign of an explosion in pay talks and promised more action in the coming weeks.

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

“It’s not going to happen the way Rishi Sunak hoped,” said Steven Fielding, emeritus professor of political history at the University of Nottingham. “He actually tried a Margaret Thatcher remake, but that didn’t work.”

When Sunak became prime minister last year, he positioned himself as the responsible manager of the economy, the man who would clean up the economic mess of his predecessor and, he hoped, turn things around in time for the next election. , which should be held in January 2025. Like Margaret Thatcher, the former conservative leader who is still lionized by the party, Sunak’s government did not back down from the unions and introduced new “anti-strike” legislation.

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

Sunak has no such air. His government has been dogged by allegations of “corruption” and the economic outlook is bleak. The International Monetary Fund on Tuesday predicted that the United Kingdom will be the only major economy in the world to fall into recession by 2023.

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

Fielding said that running strikes are now more common than in the late 1970s. “It was intense, but a relatively short few months. It’s been going on since the summer. And it’s growing in parts of the economy that were untouched in the 1970s. It’s not just bin men. It’s university professors, doctors , firefighters, ambulance drivers, everyone is on strike.


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