London: About half a million British workers are striking on Wednesday as unions stage a mass walkout timed to disrupt Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt’s annual budget.
Teachers, junior doctors, civil servants and workers on the London Underground were expected to join picket lines, with rallies and marches planned near Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament. The capital’s subway is all but shut because of a dispute over reforms to pensions and working conditions, some schools are closed and hospitals are facing disruption as workers coordinate their industrial action.
The protests - mainly over pay - pile pressure on Hunt to loosen the Treasury’s purse strings as double-digit inflation erodes earnings and plunges households into a cost-of-living squeeze.
“When the chancellor leaves Downing Street to go to Parliament to deliver the budget, he will see picket lines outside the Cabinet Office and various government departments that are on strike,” said Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union. “It isn’t responsible for people who work for you to have use food banks and skip meals.”
But Hunt and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak have said that generous public sector pay deals would stoke inflation even further, prolonging the economic hit to workers.
“We want to work with unions to agree fair and reasonable pay increases,” Sunak’s spokesman, Jamie Davies, told reporters on Tuesday. “We want to sit down with the unions,” he said, adding that strikes had to be suspended before any discussions could take place.
More than half of the UK’s parents could be affected by closed schools, according to the Office for National Statistics, with many reporting they’ll have to work fewer hours.
Almost 50,000 junior doctors from the British Medical Association and HCSA unions will complete the final leg of a 72-hour walkout that’s added to pressures on the National Health Service, which has been struggling to get down waiting times.
“We can’t go on like this,” said Julian Hartley, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents the health service’s trusts. “The knock-on effects of a three-day strike will be felt for a long time to come.”
Civil servants, joined for the first time by staff at HM Revenue & Customs, are holding their biggest strike yet with 133,000 people walking out. Passengers travelling into UK airports could be affected, with passport officers striking again, although previous walkouts have not caused significant disruption.
Still, ministers are hopeful of progress after health unions including the Royal College of Nursing suspended strikes in order to resume pay talks.
Harriett Baldwin, the chair of Parliament’s Treasury Select Committee, cautioned against giving public-sector workers pay increases in line with inflation.
“Then you get into a wage-price spiral,” she told Sky News. “It gets much harder to get inflation back down again.”