London CNN — As many as half a million workers are striking across Britain on Wednesday, closing schools, canceling university lectures and bringing most of the rail network to a standstill in what unions say will be the biggest single day of walkouts in more than a decade.
Teachers, university staff, train drivers and civil servants — including staff checking passports at airports — are striking in large numbers over pay and working conditions as living standards continue to plunge after years of below-inflation raises.
At the same time, the Trades Union Congress, which represents 48 unions, is holding over 75 rallies across the United Kingdom to protest a government bill that it argues is an “attack” on the right to strike. The bill would require basic service levels to be maintained in the fire, ambulance and rail sectors in the event of walkouts.
Escalating strike action comes just weeks after the government tried to resolve pay disputes to bring an end to the worst wave of industrial unrest the country has seen in decades. Many public sector workers have been offered raises of 4% or 5% for the current financial year, with the annual rate of inflation running at 10.5%.
Up to 300,000 teachers are expected to strike on Wednesday, marking the first of seven days of strike action through February and March by the National Education Union, the largest union in the sector. Strikes will affect around 23,400 schools, about 85%, in England and Wales, with many closed fully or partially.
Wednesday also marks the beginning of strikes by 70,000 members of the University and College Union (UCU), which will hit 150 UK universities on 18 days in February and March, affecting 2.5 million students.
Meanwhile, more than 100,000 members of the Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents civil servants, will strike over pay, pensions and job security at 123 government departments and agencies.
And only around 30% of train services are expected to run on Wednesday, according to Britain’s railway company Rail Delivery Group, which warned in a statement on its website that the disruption could drag on into the rest of the week because many trains won’t be in the right depots.
Sliding towards recession
The strikes will take a toll on already slowing economic growth. The United Kingdom is likely to be the only major economy to fall into recession this year, after recording one of the strongest growth rates among advanced economies last year, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The IMF has marginally upgraded its forecast for global growth, on the back of China’s reopening and an improvement in financial conditions as inflation starts to ease.
On Britain, however, the fund has turned gloomier.
Research director Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas said this was because of higher energy prices, lower productivity as a result of employment not recovering to its pre-pandemic level and elevated inflation leading to higher interest rates and mortgage costs.
The IMF expects inflation to remain above 8% in the United Kingdom this year, compared to a rate of 4.6% across advanced economies and 6.6% globally. It sees the UK economy contracting by 0.6% in 2023, a 0.9 percentage point downgrade from its forecast in October.
Living standards fall
An economic slowdown and persistent inflation will worsen a cost-of-living crisis that is afflicting thousands of workers, as wages fail to keep pace with rising prices.
The average 5% pay increase for teachers this year is inadequate, particularly as it follows a decade of “wage erosion” that is leading to a “recruitment and retention crisis,” NEU deputy general secretary Niamh Sweeny told CNN.
According to the union, pay for experienced teachers has declined by 23% since 2010 once inflation is taken into account. Support staff such as teaching assistants have seen salaries fall by 27% in real terms over that period, and some can earn more working in their local supermarket than in education, according to Sweeny.
A spokesperson for the Department of Education responded: “Strike action is highly damaging to children’s education, particularly following the disruption that children have experienced over the past two years.”
Sian Elliott, a senior policy officer at the Trades Union Congress told CNN that the solution to the wave of strikes was simple: “All that is needed in order to resolve the current disputes is just to offer an improved pay deal.”
Yet rather than resolve pay disputes, the government has “rushed” an anti-strike bill through parliament without adequate scrutiny or an impact assessment, she added.
In a sign that industrial unrest could escalate further, UK firefighters have voted to strike for the first time since 2003. The Fire Brigades Union has given the government until February 9 to make an improved pay offer.
Nurses and ambulance drivers will begin a new wave of walkouts next week.