United Kingdom

UK braces for biggest day of strikes this winter

Strikes will close schools, cancel university classes, cripple rail services and disrupt much of the public sector this week as unions stage one of the biggest days of co-ordinated action to hit the UK in recent months.

The Trades Union Congress, the voice of the UK’s organised labour movement, will hold rallies on Wednesday across the UK in protest against the government’s anti-strike legislation and refusal to fund higher pay for public sector workers.

A bill to introduce minimum service levels in crucial sectors during industrial action is a “draconian” breach of fundamental rights, it argues.

At the same time, hundreds of thousands of people, including teachers, train drivers and civil servants, will join co-ordinated walkouts that are likely to be the most disruptive yet in a winter of rolling strikes — with school closures keeping working parents at home and most train companies running no services.

Despite the escalation of industrial action, the government has so far made it clear it is not prepared to reopen talks over this year’s public sector pay deals, which average about 4 to 5 per cent — leaving most staff suffering deep real-terms pay cuts as inflation remains in double digits.

Paul Nowak, TUC general secretary, on Friday attacked chancellor Jeremy Hunt for failing to mention public sector pay as he set out the government’s strategy for economic growth.

“It was the elephant in the room,” said Nowak, noting that the chancellor’s warnings of further fiscal restraint would be deeply worrying to public servants, because “we know that is usually code for cuts”.

“Jeremy Hunt and Rishi Sunak are key to unlocking the current industrial disputes,” he added.

Wednesday marks the first day of action by the National Education Union, which represents almost half the teaching workforce. The action will affect the vast majority of schools in England and Wales, with the NAHT headteachers’ union warning that many would close their doors rather than compromise pupils’ safety.

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, said its members were “taking a stand” for a “fully funded, above-inflation pay rise”, adding that the government could not expect to avert strikes unless it brought forward concrete proposals to increase pay.

Universities will also be affected, as lecturers represented by the University and College Union begin a series of strikes set to run over seven weeks at 150 institutions, in a long-running dispute over pay and pensions.

More than 100,000 members of the Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents civil servants, will strike at 123 government departments and agencies — with statisticians and driving instructors, coastguard officials, and government lawyers among many others joining the picket lines. The union has also set dates for later strikes, including a half term walkout by more than a 100 staff at the British Museum.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS, said last week that an offer from the Cabinet Office minister Jeremy Quin to discuss pay for the next financial year, 2023-24, would not resolve the industrial dispute unless pay for the current financial year of 2022-23 was also addressed.

Meanwhile, Aslef, which represents about 22,000 train drivers, is set to press ahead with strikes on February 1 and 3 after dismissing train companies’ offer of an 8 per cent pay rise over two years as an effort “to rip up our terms and conditions in return for a real-terms pay cut”.

Train drivers represented by the RMT rail union will also join the strikes, although the union’s local branches are considering the offer from the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operators.

The RMT, which represents a broader spectrum of rail workers, is also set to seek members’ views on the latest pay offer from Network Rail, the infrastructure operator.

But while there is a glimmer of hope in this dispute, others are still escalating. The Fire Brigades Union, which had around 30,000 members, expects to announce results on Monday of a ballot that could lead to the first nationwide strike by firefighters since 2003.


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