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Day of disruption in Britain as up to half a million workers go on strike

Striking teachers with their banners
Teachers march in protest in London, joining hundreds of thousands of workers who went on strike Wednesday.
(Alastair Grant / Associated Press)
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Thousands of schools closed some or all of their classrooms, train services were paralyzed and delays were expected at airports Wednesday in what was shaping up to be Britain’s biggest day of industrial action in more than a decade, as unions stepped up pressure on the government for better pay amid a cost-of-living crisis.

The Trades Union Congress, a federation of unions, estimated that up to half a million workers, including teachers, university staff, civil servants, border officials, and train and bus drivers, went on strike across the country.

More industrial action, including by nurses and ambulance workers, is planned for the coming days and weeks.

Britons have endured months of disruptions to their daily lives as a bitter dispute over pay and work conditions drags on between unions and the government. Wednesday’s strikes marked an escalation of disruptive action across multiple key industries.

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The last time the country saw mass walkouts on this scale was in 2011, when well more than 1 million public sector workers staged a one-day strike in a dispute over pensions.

Union bosses say that despite some pay raises — such as a 5% offer the government proposed to teachers — soaring inflation has plunged scores of public sector workers into financial difficulty because their wages have failed to keep pace. Teachers, health workers and many others say their wages have fallen in real terms over the last decade, and the surge in living costs that began last year exacerbated the problem.

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The Trades Union Congress, or TUC, said Wednesday that the average public sector worker is 203 pounds ($250) a month worse off compared with 2010, once inflation has been taken into account.

Inflation in the U.K. stands at 10.5%, the highest in 40 years, driven by skyrocketing food and energy costs. While some expect price rises to slow down this year, Britain’s economic outlook remains grim. On Tuesday, the International Monetary Fund said that Britain would be the only major economy to contract this year, performing worse even than sanctions-hit Russia.

The National Education Union said some 23,000 schools would be affected Wednesday, with an estimated 85% fully or partially closed.

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“The government [has] been running down our education [system], under-funding our schools and underpaying the people who work in them,” said Kevin Courtney, the union’s joint general secretary. There are “primary schools where you can’t find special needs assistants, because they’re taking jobs in supermarkets where they are paid better. That’s what’s making people take action.”

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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told lawmakers that teacher strikes were “wrong,” contending that his government had already given teachers their biggest pay raise in 30 years.

“Our children’s education is precious, and they deserve to be in school today,” he said.

Sunak’s office argues that pay increases for public sector workers would not be affordable for taxpayers and could lead to tax hikes, more government borrowing or spending cuts elsewhere.

But union leaders say the government has refused to negotiate and offer enough to halt the strikes.

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Unions have also been angered by the government’s plans to introduce a new law aiming to curb strike disruptions by enforcing minimum-service levels in key sectors, including health and transportation.

Lawmakers on Monday backed the bill, which has been criticized by the unions as an attack on the right to strike. Thousands of people turned out in London, Manchester and other cities Wednesday to protest the proposal.

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TUC general secretary Paul Nowak said industrial unrest would continue until the government put an acceptable pay offer on the table.

“The message to the government is that this is not going to go away. These problems won’t magically disappear,” he said.

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