Many schools were closed, trains stopped, ticket offices were cut in some administrations … In the face of massive inflation that fueled the economic crisis, the United Kingdom experienced its biggest strikes in a decade on Wednesday.
Half a million Britons have been called to strike for better pay, a day after social mobilization in France against pension reform and ahead of Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s first 100 days in power. The TUC union confederation warned it would be the “biggest day of strike action since 2011” with teachers participating for the first time in months of social mobilization.
“We are on strike because our real wages have fallen over the last ten years. Some of our members, even if they work, have to go to food banks,” Graham said angrily at a picket outside an employment agency in London.
In the early hours of the morning, London’s King’s Cross station, which thousands of workers pass through every day, was exceptionally quiet as a rail workers’ strike prevented many people from getting to their workplaces.
“I want to go to Leeds, but there’s no direct train,” worries Edward, 45, an executive at a technology company. Kate Lewis, 50, a charity worker, considers herself “lucky” to be able to catch a train home.
She says she “understands” the strikers. “We are all in the same boat. Everyone is affected by inflation.
Several thousand schools have closed specifically at the call of the NEU teachers’ union, forcing parents, sometimes notified at the last minute, to stay home to care for their children.
As with social movements supported by relatively public opinion, several parent organizations issued a joint statement in which they said they “support” the movement, pointing to the “effects of years of underfunding” on schools.
Education Minister Gillian Keegan said she was “disappointed” and “deeply concerned” by the move, adding that she thought it was “economically inappropriate” to grant the requested pay rises.
“We will study future salaries, we will look at the workload and the flexibility that teachers are asking for”, as well as problems with recruiting teachers, he defended on Sky News on Wednesday morning.
There is no “magic wand”.
Despite the Border Police strike, London’s Heathrow airport was “fully operational” on Wednesday morning, a spokesman said, recalling that soldiers had been deployed to compensate for the absence of strikers.
“I don’t want anything like having a magic wand and giving you more money (…),” assured Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during a visit to health department staff on Monday. But according to him, the wage hike will fuel inflation and further damage public finances.
Across all sectors, the strikers are demanding wages in line with inflation, which has topped 10% for months, pushing millions of Britons into poverty.
According to the latest IMF projections, the country should be the only major economy to experience a recession this year, with its GDP shrinking by 0.6%.
The standoff is linked to working conditions, pensions or the government’s desire to limit the right to strike and the TUC is organizing several rallies across the country on Wednesday to defend it.
The movement has been going on since spring. Since last June, 1.6 million working days have been “lost”, according to the Office for National Statistics.
A new walkout is planned for Friday if hopes of progress appear to be on the rail, when firefighters voted in favor of the first strike in two decades. Nurses and paramedics will also go on strike again in February.
British customs officials stationed in France announced on Wednesday that they would go on strike during the February holidays.
“The government’s stand is unacceptable. He cannot sit on an unprecedented and growing strike movement,” PCS executive union general secretary Mark Cervotka responded on Sky News, calling for a “more realistic approach”.
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