LONDON — A long-running dispute over pay and working conditions came to a head Wednesday, with hundreds of thousands of British workers taking part in what organizers said was the biggest day of industrial action in more than a decade.
The prime minister’s office warned Britons that the strike would cause “significant disruption.” Thousands of schools were closed — about 85 percent of schools in England and Wales were affected, according to the National Education Union — and most trains in England were not running.
“Walkout Wednesday” is how the Daily Mail newspaper described the strikes, calling the action 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 British newspapers have dubbed the “Winter of Discontent,” named after a period in 1978-79 characterized by widespread stoppages.
Catherine Barnard, a British academic who specializes in employment law at the University of Cambridge, said Britain has the toughest striking laws in Europe. Disgruntled workers have 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 such as 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.
In London on Wednesday, tens of thousands spilled out onto the streets carrying placards that read, “I couldn’t afford art supplies to make this sign” and “If you can read this, it’s because a teacher taught you.” Another sign read, “Our scissors are blunt but the cuts are sharp!”
Nick Hone, 33, an elementary school teacher, was in the crowd marching toward the prime minister’s Downing Street offices. “We’ve basically had 12 years of funding cuts, and it really hits home in schools. I think many don’t realize the impact; when you don’t have enough staff, it increases workload hugely.”
Des Hoar, 46, a civil servant who stressed that he was speaking in his role as a Public and Commercial Services Union representative, said: “There are tens of thousands who work for Department of Work and Pensions, and as part of their job they give [welfare] benefits to people. And tens of thousands of them have to claim those benefits themselves and go to foodbanks.”
Workers say that they are underpaid and overworked and that their 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 it cannot pay teachers what they are requesting because it would fuel inflation, which is more than 10 percent.
Both sides are digging in their heels, and several unions have penciled in further strikes in the days and weeks ahead. 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 they had done so in their union’s 106-year history.
“It’s not going the way [Prime Minister] 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 would 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.
The public is divided over the strikes; one recent poll found 40 percent of respondents supporting the strikes and 38 percent opposed. Research from YouGov found that support for various sectors correlated not with the disruption caused, but with workers’ perceived contribution to society and whether they are underpaid.
Fielding said this year’s wave 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.”
Annie Milovic, a civil servant taking part in the London march, said: “We’ve been really poorly treated for a decade, and it’s time to say ‘enough.’” Asked if everyone isn’t feeling the squeeze and in need of a pay raise, she said, “Yes, but it isn’t a race to the bottom.”