- Up to 500,000 people are expected to join the UK strikes
- The government says big wage increases will fuel inflation
- Schools are closed and most trains are not running
- Next week, more strikes involving health workers are planned
LONDON (Reuters) – Up to half a million British teachers, civil servants and train drivers walked out on pay in the biggest coordinated strike in a decade on Wednesday, as unions threaten further disruption as the government seeks to scuttle their pay. on wage demands.
Mass strikes across the country closed schools, halted most rail services, and forced the military to prepare to help with border checks on a day unions dubbed “Walking Wednesday.”
According to the unions, up to 300,000 teachers are expected to take part in the strike, the largest group participating, as part of wider activity by 500,000 people, the highest number since 2011, when civil servants walked out en masse.
The PCS union, which represents about 100,000 striking civil servants from more than 120 government departments, has warned Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government that further labor coordination is inevitable.
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“If the government doesn’t do something about it, I think we will see more days like today with more and more unions joining,” Mark Sirotka, the party’s general secretary, told Reuters.
“We need the money now,” he added.
With inflation soaring more than 10% – the highest level in four decades – Britain has seen a flurry of strikes in recent months across the public and private sectors, including health and transport workers, Amazon warehouse staff and Royal Mail employees.
Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said the government would not budge, and that giving in to demands for big wage increases would only increase inflation.
She told the BBC: “What we can’t do is give inflation-breaking wage increases to one part of the workforce and make inflation worse for everyone. It just doesn’t make economic sense.”
So far the economy has not been hit hard by industrial strikes, with the Center for Economics and Business Research estimating the cost of the strikes in the eight months to January at around 1.7 billion pounds ($2.09 billion), or about 0.1% of projected GDP.
She estimated the estimated impact of the teachers’ strikes at 20 million pounds per day.
But the strikes could have a political impact on Sunak’s government.
The Conservative Party, led by the opposition Labor Party, has a lead of about 25 percentage points in opinion polls, and opinion polls suggest that the public thinks the government has handled the strikes poorly.
Jonathan Novell, a physician, said Britain was in a difficult situation given its limited resources.
“It’s sad, the teachers…the kids want to do their exams and I think there’s an enormous amount of pressure on everyone. Frustrating,” he said near London Bridge station.
The strikers are demanding wage increases above inflation rates to cover rising food and energy bills, which they say has left them struggling to make ends meet.
Marie Boustead, general secretary of the National Education Union, told Reuters that teachers in her union felt they had no choice but to strike because lower wages meant large numbers of workers were left in the profession, making it more difficult for those who remained.
“There has been, over the last 12 years, a catastrophic, long-term decline in their salaries,” she said outside a school in south London.
“They are saying, very reluctantly, that enough is enough and that things have to change.”
Next week, more strikes are scheduled for nurses, ambulance staff, paramedics, emergency call operators and other healthcare workers, while this week firefighters also supported a nationwide strike.
Rallies are also scheduled for later on Wednesday to protest a new law to limit strikes in some sectors.
Outside Bishop Thomas Grant School in Streatham, south London, Natasha Di Stefano Honey, a teacher for the past 14 years, said it had been the worst teaching period she could remember.
“Maybe 10 years ago I would really recommend teaching as a profession,” she said, “and now I’m one of those teachers who can’t recommend it.”
($1 = 0.8130 pounds)
Additional reporting by Michael Holden, Alistair Smoot, William Schomberg, Natalie Thomas, Will Russell, Widarissa Chapung, Ben McCurry, Gerhard May and Sarah Young; Editing by Jonathan Otis, Raisa Kasulowski, and Christina Fincher
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