Sea of protest in Britain as up to 500,000 workers walk out over pay demands

Britain is facing its most sweeping wave of industrial action in decades, with workers across sectors including health care, transport and education all walking off the job. This as the U.K. sees the worst inflation in 40 years.

U.K. seeing worst inflation in 40 years, leaving many workers resorting to food banks

A group of young strikers in Britain raise fists and shake signs.
Striking workers attend a march in London on Wednesday. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

Up to half a million British teachers, civil servants, and train drivers walked out over pay in the largest co-ordinated 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 "Walkout Wednesday."

According to unions, as many as 300,000 teachers took part, 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.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak condemned the strikes, which forced millions of children to miss school.

"I am clear that our children's education is precious and they deserve to be in school today being taught," he said.

His government has taken a hard line against the unions, arguing that giving in to demands for large wage hikes would further fuel Britain's inflation problem.

WATCH | U.K. teachers and nurses walk out:

U.K. teachers join biggest mass strike over pay

2 months ago
Duration 1:45
Up to half a million British teachers, civil servants and train drivers participated in the biggest strike in more than a decade, with unions threatening the government with more disruptions if it doesn't meet their pay demands. This comes as Britain has seen inflation at more than 10 per cent.

This sweeping wave of industrial action in Britain is being driven by workers across many sectors — health care, transport and education.

At the heart of the unrest is pay.

Average wage growth in Britain slowed after the global financial crisis, and while it gradually picked up in the second half of the 2010s, pay rises were generally smaller for public-sector workers and brought little or no real-term increase.

The divide between public and private-sector pay has become especially sharp over the past year as consumer price inflation reached double digits. Private-sector pay in the three months to November was up 7.1 per cent compared with a year earlier, while average public-sector pay has grown by 3.3 percent over the same period.

Worst inflation in 40 years

Many of the particularly disruptive industrial disputes are in partly or fully public sectors such as transport and health care, involving railway staff, paramedics and nurses.

Britain's worst inflation in 40 years, of around 10 per cent in recent months, has outpaced most public pay offers, and caused a cost-of-living crisis which has seen even some people with jobs resort to food banks.

Many unions say their workers' pay has been eroded over the past 10 years by only modest growth, further compounding the impact of the recent high inflation, which is caused by soaring energy prices and the after-effects of the pandemic.

While some private sector workers, from container port staff to bus drivers, have reached pay deals with employers after taking strike action, many public sector disputes continue.

WATCH | Nurses walk off the job:

U.K. nurses go on strike, demand better pay to cope with inflation

3 months ago
Duration 2:02
Thousands of nurses in the United Kingdom have walked off the job in what is the largest strike to rock the country’s National Health Service. They say they are overworked, underpaid and are calling for a five per cent raise above the country’s 14 per cent inflation rate.

Railway staff, nurses and ambulance workers, teachers and civil servants are demanding pay rises that match or exceed inflation as well as some commitments on working conditions.

The union representing teachers in the state-funded school system has asked for an above-inflation pay award funded fully by the government.

About 100,000 civil servants — who work in government departments from Border Force airport staff to driving license agency workers — have also been staging strikes as they demand a 10 per cent pay rise.

Rail strikes a blow to already weakened economy

In response, Britain's government, which takes advice from independent pay bodies when setting public wage increases, has urged unions to cancel strikes while it holds talks with them.

It has argued that inflation-matching pay rises would only fuel further price increases and cause interest rates and mortgage payments to rise further.

The demands on the public purse also come as the government embarks on a package of tax rises and spending cuts in an attempt to repair the public finances and tame inflation.

In the meantime, rail strikes have caused widespread disruption for commuters and badly damaged the hospitality industry in cities as people stayed at home. A government minister also urged Britons to avoid risky outdoor activities on a day when ambulance workers were striking.

The period between June and November saw more days lost to industrial action than in any six months for over 30 years, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), a consultancy.

The CEBR estimates that strikes and the indirect effect of worker absences caused by rail strikes cost the economy at least 1.7 billion pounds ($2.8 billion Cdn) over eight months last year, a fraction of the economy's total annual output of over 2 trillion pounds ($3.29 trillion Cdn).

Nurses strike holding placards that read: It's time to pay nursing staff fairly
Striking nurses hold signs at a picket line outside University College Hospital in London on January 19, 2023. (Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images )

Sachin Ravikumar


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?