Worst UK strikes in a decade as teachers, train drivers protest over new law

Bloomberg | | Posted by Shobhit Gupta
Feb 01, 2023 04:43 PM IST

UK strikes: Swathes of office staff have been forced to work from home Wednesday as widespread industrial action closes schools and cripples Britain’s rail network.

Swathes of office staff have been forced to work from home Wednesday as widespread industrial action closes schools and cripples Britain’s rail network.

Teachers march during joint strike action by train drivers, teachers, university staff and civil servants, in London, UK, on Wednesday, (Bloomberg)
Teachers march during joint strike action by train drivers, teachers, university staff and civil servants, in London, UK, on Wednesday, (Bloomberg)

As many as 475,000 union members are on strike, demanding pay rises that do more to combat the cost-of-living crisis. Many were given salary increases of less than 5% last year, even as inflation climbed above 10%.

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Major train stations in London are completely closed, including Victoria, Cannon Street, Marylebone and London Bridge, while more than a dozen key commuter rail lines aren’t running any services.

Some 85% of schools in England and Wales are estimated to be closed or partly shuttered, according to the National Education Union. However, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said Wednesday morning that “the majority of schools” are open, with more precise figures to be published later today.

The day of coordinated industrial action is likely to be Britain’s most severe day of strikes for over a decade, piling pressure on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative administration to resolve disputes with public sector workers by making more generous offers on pay. Train drivers, teachers, university staff and civil servants are all protesting together.

Mass strikes may have cost the UK around £1.5 billion ($1.85 billion) in the final quarter of the year, according to Bloomberg Economics, with the economy expected to go backward in the first three months of 2023.

‘Significant Disruption’

“We know there will be significant disruption given the scale of strike action,” Sunak’s spokesman, Max Blain, told reporters in London on Tuesday. “That will be very difficult for the public trying to go about their daily lives.”

More than half the public believe Sunak’s government is doing a bad job of negotiating with unions to avoid public sector strikes, according to an Ipsos poll published Wednesday. Just 17% think ministers are doing a good job, while nearly a third — 31% — said Keir Starmer’s opposition Labour party would be handling the situation better if it was in power.

The strike by teachers in particular is likely to be disruptive, because many parents will have to stay at home as a result. More than 100,000 teachers are expected to walk out of 23,000 schools in England and Wales.

Teaching assistants have started quitting their jobs to work in shops, according to NEU Joint Secretary Kevin Courtney. “You can often get better pay in a supermarket for a less skilled and less responsible job,” he said Tuesday in an interview.

Read more: UK teachers may go on strike as PM Sunak battles to contain unrest

Among the civil servants on strike will be Border Force officials at airports and major ports. Adding to the government’s woes, the Public and Commercial Services union said late Tuesday that about 1,000 border force officers who work across the Channel in Dover, Calais, Coquelles and Dunkirk will hold a 4-day strike starting Feb. 17. That’s likely to disrupt holidaymakers returning to the UK by ferry during the school break.

On Wednesday, there will also be no Gatwick Express or Heathrow Express trains, which normally carry passengers between the air hubs and central London.

Heathrow said Wednesday morning that border control was operating as normal as no flights had been canceled.

Curbing Strikes

Negotiations with train drivers have “gone backwards,” according to Simon Weller, the Aslef union’s assistant general secretary. “We’re now in a worse place than we were six months ago.”

Nevertheless, another rail union that’s been coordinating strikes for months said on Tuesday that it had received an improved offer from train operators and would now consider whether to put that to members for a vote.

The Trades Union Congress last month called for workers to hold a “protect the right to strike” day on Feb. 1 in protest at legislation being pushed through Parliament that aims to restrict walkouts by certain key industries by imposing a minimum service level on strike days.

The legislation, which completed its passage through the House of Commons on Monday and now moves to the House of Lords, will set minimum requirements for operations on strike days by fire, ambulance and rail services, with penalties for not meeting them.

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The planned law also covers health care, education, nuclear decommissioning, border security and other modes of transport, but those sectors will be subject to voluntary agreements on minimum service levels.

“Our message to ministers is this — stop attacking the right to strike and start negotiating with unions in good faith on public sector pa,” TUC General Secretary Paul Nowak said in a statement.

On Wednesday he added that he’s “not interested in beer and sandwiches or indeed tea and sympathy” and only wished to discuss higher pay for workers.

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