US and World Politics

British “Mega Strike”

Half a million workers bring UK to a halt and protest government

By Diego Sacchi

On February 1, 2023, over half-a-million workers in the UK took part in a “mega strike,” the largest labor protest in the country in over a decade. Around 85 percent of schools were affected or fully closed, most trains stood still, and offices stood empty as workers took to the streets to protest the Conservative government of Rishi Sunak and demand higher wages.

Wednesday’s strike was part of a joint call by different unions grouped in the Trades Union Congress (TUC) to demand wage increases in the face of a 14-percent increase in the cost of living. Inflation in January hit eight percent, with food prices increasing by between 13 and 15 percent. Around five percent of British households are reportedly running out of food and struggling to afford to buy more, and a growing number of working families are depending on food banks.

Wednesday’s actions were also a protest against the Conservative Party’s attacks on the right to strike. Workers are calling for the repeal of a recent bill which would mandate minimum levels of service during strike actions such as walkouts, forcing employees in certain sectors to keep working. With this, the struggle is not just directed toward achieving a single economic demand, but takes on a more political character, confronting the anti-worker policies of the UK government; this raises the possibility of the fight expanding beyond the half-a-million workers who have already taken to the streets.

Among the sectors that went on strike were railroad workers, train drivers belonging to the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF) and Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers (RMT) unions, and teachers belonging to the National Education Union (NEU). 70,000 teachers, librarians, and research workers from 150 universities who are part of the University and College Union (UCU) also joined the demonstration, and are poised to continue striking in 17 more days of action during February and March over pay and pension disputes.

Wednesday’s “mega strike” comes after several months of strikes by various sectors. During what some called a “summer of discontent,” RMT workers brought British transportation to a standstill. The UCU likewise held labor actions last year, and in December, nurses held their first national strikes in the more than 100-year history of their union.

Support for strikes in these sectors is mixed, though more people support than oppose the actions. At least 53 percent of people support nurses going on strike, while 49 percent support teachers’ strike actions. Overall, only 37 percent of Britons support unions; however, this proportion is up from 34 percent in November.

The Conservative government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak continues to play hardball in negotiations, insisting there is no money to grant the demanded salary increases. In the healthcare sector, for example, the government has refused to bump up its offer of an increase between 4.5 and five percent, despite soaring inflation. The railway sector has been offered a nine-percent wage increase over two years, a proposal which has been rejected by the workers. The Sunak government is also pushing ahead with its anti-labor minimum service bill.

Union leaderships are so far refusing to call for joint actions to go on indefinite strike until all demands are met. However, rank-and-file workers continue to vote for new actions and show solidarity with other sectors. Wednesday’s “mega strike” was an expression of workers’ power, and shows the way forward to achieve their demands.

LeftVoice, February 2, 2023