Britain grinds to a halt as half a million workers go on strike

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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 a decade.

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

Up to 500,000 British workers, including teachers, struck over pay and working conditions on Feb. 1, in Britain’s largest day of industrial action in decades. (Video: Reuters)

Downing Street warned Britons that the strike would cause “significant disruption.” Thousands of schools were closed — about 85 percent of schools in England and Wales were 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 called the disruption “Lockdown 2023.”

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

Catherine Barnard, a British academic who specializes in employment law at the University of Cambridge, said that Britain has the toughest striking laws in Europe, with disgruntled workers having to jump through many hoops before they can strike — and they are set to get tougher.

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

Still, various workers have been striking en masse since last summer — and since then, the scale of the strikes has only escalated.

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

Several unions say that there is no sign of a breakthrough in pay talks and have pledged 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 figure out what strikes are on in their area and when. Next week, nurses are expected to once again join the picket lines. 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 it would go,” said Steven Fielding, emeritus professor of political history at University of Nottingham. “He’s basically tried a retread of Margaret Thatcher, but that’s not working.”

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

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

Sunak has no such wind. His government has been dogged by allegations of “sleaze” and the economic outlook is gloomy. The International Monetary Fund on Tuesday predicted that the United Kingdom would be the only major global economy to slide into recession in 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 correlated not with disruption caused, but with workers’ perceived contribution to society and whether they are underpaid.

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

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