A striking teacher holds a banner which reads "Pay Up" during joint strike action by train drivers, teachers, university staff and civil servants, in Leeds, UK, on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. Image Credit: Bloomberg

London: Up to half a million British teachers, civil servants, and train drivers walked out over pay in the largest coordinated strike action for a decade on Wednesday, with unions threatening more disruption as the government digs its heels in over pay demands.

The mass walkouts across the country shut schools, halted most rail services, and forced the military to be put on standby to help with border checks on a day dubbed “Walk Out Wednesday” by unions.

According to unions, as many as 300,000 teachers are expected to be on strike, the biggest group involved, as part of wider action by 500,000 people, the highest number since 2011, when civil servants walked out en masse.

Striking workers attend a "Right To Strike" rally during joint strike action by train drivers, teachers, university staff and civil servants, in Leeds, UK, on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. Image Credit: Bloomberg

The PCS Union, representing about 100,000 striking civil servants from more than 120 government departments, warned Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government that further co-ordinated action was inevitable.

“If the government doesn’t do something about it, I think we will see more days like today with more and more unions joining in,” PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka told Reuters.

“We need money now,” he added.

With inflation running at more than 10% - the highest level in four decades - Britain has seen a wave of strikes in recent months across the public and private sectors, including health and transport workers, Amazon warehouse employees and Royal Mail postal staff.

Education minister Gillian Keegan said the government would not budge, and that giving in to demands for large wage increases would only fuel inflation.

“What we cannot do is give inflation-busting pay rises to one part of the workforce and make inflation worse for everybody. That’s not an economically sensible thing to do,” she told the BBC.

Workers walk along the concourse at the closed London Victoria railway station during joint strike action by train drivers, teachers, university staff and civil servants, in London, UK, on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. Image Credit: Bloomberg

Badly handled

So far the economy has not taken a major hit from the industrial action, with the cost of strikes in the eight months to January estimated by the Centre for Economics and Business Research at about 1.7 billion pounds ($2.09 billion), or about 0.1% of expected GDP.

It put the estimated impact of the teachers’ strikes at about 20 million pounds a day.

But the strikes may be having a political impact on Sunak’s government.

His Conservative Party trail the opposition Labour Party by some 25 percentage points in polls and surveys indicate the public think the government has handled the strikes badly.

Jonathan Novelle, a doctor, said Britain was in a difficult situation given that resources were limited.

“It’s sad, teachers... kids want to do their exams and I think there’s a huge amount of pressure on everybody.

Depressing,” he said near London Bridge station.

Teachers hold placards as they take part in a protest organised NEU and other affiliated trade unions in central London, on February 1, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

The strikers are demanding above-inflation pay rises to cover rocketing food and energy bills that they say has left them struggling to make ends meet.

Mary Bousted, General Secretary of National Education Union, told Reuters that teachers in her union felt they had no choice but to strike as declining pay meant high numbers were leaving the profession, making it harder for those that remain.

“There has been, over the last 12 years, a really catastrophic long term decline in their pay,” she said outside a school in south London.

“They are saying, very reluctantly, that enough is enough and that things have to change.” Next week, nurses, ambulance staff, paramedics, emergency call handlers and other healthcare workers are set to stage more walkouts, while firefighters this week also backed a nationwide strike.

There are also rallies planned for later on Wednesday to protest against a new law to curb strikes in some sectors.

Outside Bishop Thomas Grant School in Streatham, south London, Natasha De Stefano-Honey, a teacher for the last 14 years, said it was the worst period for education she could remember.

“Maybe 10 years ago I would really recommend teaching as a career and now I am one of those teachers that can’t recommend it,” she said.