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Half a million UK workers strike over pay amid high inflation

London, Feb 2 (IANS) Up to half a million teachers, university staff, train drivers and civil servants in the UK went on a strike in the largest coordinated action for years amid high inflation and lengthy disputes over pay.

On Wednesday, members of the National Education Union in England and Wales walked out in the first of several days, affecting 23,400 schools, reports Xinhua news agency.

The union said there is a crisis of recruitment and retention within the school system and that the government must address a decade of falling pay.

Around 70,000 staff at 150 universities across Britain were on strike in the first of 18 days in disputes over pay, working conditions and pensions.

Their action will impact 2.5 million students through February and March, the University and College Union said.

“Staff aren’t asking for much. They want a decent pay rise, secure employment and for devastating pension cuts to be reversed,” said Jo Grady, general secretary of the college union.

Train drivers from the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) at 14 rail operators were also expected to strike on Friday over pay and conditions.

“Our negotiations will continue with the rail operators to create a package on jobs, conditions and pay that can be offered to our members,” RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said.

Also on Wednesday, around 100,000 members of the Public and Commercial Services Union, employed by over 100 different employers in the civil service, walked out as part of the union’s national campaign on pay, pensions and jobs.

The strike “will be the largest civil service strike for years and signals a significant escalation of industrial action after a month of strikes”, the services union said.

In response, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the strikes would disrupt people’s lives, and negotiations rather than picket lines are the right approach.

Over the last year, the UK has witnessed record-high inflation.

The consumer price index rose at an annual rate of 10.5 per cent in December, and the cost-of-living crisis continued as food inflation remained historically high, official figures showed.

Meanwhile, wages have failed to keep up. When adjusted for inflation, real growth in total and regular pay fell by 2.6 per cent on the year from September to November 2022, among the largest declines in growth since comparable records began in 2001, the Office for National Statistics revealed.

Amid consistently high inflation, polling by market research company Ipsos revealed on Tuesday that 67 per cent of Britons believe the worst of the cost-of-living crisis is still to come, while 27 per cent think its impact has already reached its peak.

Because of the pay disputes, Britain has been under a wave of strikes since last summer.

The government has locked horns with trade unions, saying the pay rises demanded are unaffordable, and higher pay would not help fight inflation.

To ensure public safety and access to public services, the government in January introduced new laws that would enable it to set minimum levels of service during strikes.

Meanwhile, public anger is also on the rise.

An Ipsos poll on Wednesday showed that just under a fifth think the government is doing a good job negotiating with trade unions to prevent public workers from going on strike, while half think it is doing a lousy job.

The large-scale strikes on Wednesday are also expected to take a huge economic toll.

Britain has plunged into an effective “mini lockdown” as half a million workers went on strike, and millions of others were forced to stay at home due to the mass walkouts, noted the Centre for Economics and Business Research.

Modeling from the consultancy showed that the total direct cost of the single day’s strike action in rail, education and the civil service would be 94 million pounds ($116 million), making it the costliest day across the whole eight-month strike period.