British workers and unionists take to the streets

By Peter Melahn, Guest Writer

Nearly half a million British workers went on strike last Wednesday in one of the largest gatherings of workers and unionists in the UK in nearly a decade.

Inflation rates in the UK stand at around 10.5% — higher than they have been in nearly half a century. This is an increase fueled mainly by rising food and energy costs. 

Workers gathered last week to demand higher wages, among other things, to keep up with skyrocketing prices. Officials from the Trades Union Congress, a major federation of workers’ unions in England and Wales, said that on average, public sector workers are more than 200 pounds a month worse off than they were a year ago. That equates to about 250 U.S. dollars.

The strike, driven mainly by public sector workers, saw hundreds of thousands of essential workers such as teachers, nurses and rail workers who took to the streets and demanded changes. It is public sector laborers whose wages are set by the government, so the industrial action was spearheaded by workers in these areas.

Day-to-day life in the UK was greatly disrupted because of the strikes. It is estimated that more than 20,000 schools were affected — nearly 85% of all schools in the UK. 

One striking worker stated, “Teachers are not just teachers. They are social workers. They are nurses. They are all sorts of different professions within the job itself.” 

The effects of the strike were felt by people all over the UK as schools closed and rail systems halted. 

“The government has been running down our education (systems), underfunding our schools and underpaying the people who work in them,” – Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the UK’s National Education Union stated.

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Nearly half a million British workers went on strike last week to demand higher wages among other items.

In response to the strikes, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has called the strikes “unacceptable.”

Sunak, the UK’s third prime minister in the past year, has pledged to get the nation’s economy back on track. 

“An important part of us getting a grip on inflation and halving it is making sure the government’s responsible with its borrowing because, if that gets out of control, that makes it worse,” he stated. 

The government under Sunak has taken the stance that increasing wages for public sector workers will only fuel the inflation crisis.

For many, the strike was necessitated by another issue in addition to unfair wages.Wednesday’s strike was also a display of the belief that workers in the UK have a right to unionize and organize industrial actions. Many workers are upset at a new government plan which aims to curb the effects of strikes by creating a “minimum service levels rule.” The enforcement of such a rule would essentially limit the right to strike from different types of essential workers in areas such as health and transportation.

“The British people need to know that when they have a heart attack, a stroke or a serious injury, that an ambulance will turn up and that if they need hospital care, they have access to it,” Business Minister Grant Shapps said.

“I’m introducing a bill that will give government power to ensure the vital public services will have to maintain a basic function by delivering minimum safety levels ensuring that lives and livelihoods are not lost,” Shapps added.

“This law could make effective strike action illegal,” Mick Lynch, a union leader, said.

Protests are expected to continue in the following weeks. The National Education Union has given the government a deadline. Its head, Mary Bousted, stated last week: “What I would say to the government is that you have now got 27 days until the next strike in England… that’s 27 days where you can sit down and really negotiate with us.”