US and World Politics

Strikers Unite Across England

By Steven Morris, Jessica Murray and Tobi Thomas

In what was billed as the biggest day of industrial action in a decade, a range of workers from teachers to train drivers, civil servants to university staff went on strike on Wednesday, February 1, 2023. Guardian reporters spoke to groups of people on picket lines and at demonstrations in Bristol, Birmingham, and London.

Bristol: “We need to show
we are serious”

Thousands of striking workers including civil servants, university lecturers, teachers and train drivers marched through Bristol calling for better pay and working conditions. Led by drummers and accompanied by many children whose schools had closed, a large, noisy crowd gathered on College Green before proceeding through the city center, generally receiving a warm welcome from passersby.

Jon Voake, a drama teacher at Downend school in south Gloucestershire, said: “It’s partly about pay, which has been reduced by 11 percent over the last ten years. But it’s also about how our workload’s going up. We’re all working with bigger groups. Children’s education is going to suffer and enough is enough.”

Voake was there with his department’s mascot, an ogre called Fred made for a school production but now taken out on strikes. “He gets out more than we’d like,” Voake said. “This is the fifth time I’ve been out in 20 years.”

A teacher in his first year said he was already wondering whether the profession was for him. “There’s such a contrast between last year when I was training and we were given a huge amount of support in planning lessons, thinking about how best to teach the students, to this year when I’m working weekends and holidays, staying late and still not teaching to the standard I’d like because of the workload. It’s simply too much. I’m really wondering if I can sustain it.”

Liz Franco, a civil servant, and member of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), said: “We’re way behind in terms of our wages. I’ve been conflicted about going on strike, but we need to show we are serious about this, and something needs to be done.” She said workers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency were attending the rally and march. “There’s a variety of jobs and people of all ages. Feelings are strong.”

Gerard Cooke and Kim Hicks, two actors, were carrying an Equity banner through the streets. Cooke said: “We’re here in solidarity with unions that are striking today. The cost-of-living crisis has hit everybody.” Hicks added: “The only way any message is going to get through is if we continue to be seen.”

Jonas Rademacker, a professor of physics at the University of Bristol, said he would much rather have been teaching than marching. “But we’re very fed up with a massively increasingly workload. Most of us spend weekends catching up with our work and at the same time our employers continue to cut our real-time pay and there is a massive attack on our pensions. We’d all rather be teaching. We love our students. This is not a good choice for us.”

David Cussans, a research fellow in the university’s school of physics, said: “So many people seem to be close to burnout. It’s not the money per se, it’s the feeling of being unappreciated, being ground down.”

A notable feature of the Bristol demonstration was the number of children supporting teachers—often their mothers or fathers. Josie Burden, a teacher at Bowsland Green primary in south Gloucestershire, was there with her children, Jago, ten, and Casper, five. “It’s sad that the children understand the effect of the cuts,” she said. “They know they can’t just have a glue stick when they want one. The resources they have are limited. These two were keen to come. They love school, they love their teachers and wanted to support them.”

Seb, a high-speed train driver, said he was moved by people from so many jobs and professions coming together. “Our disputes may be separate, but we have one aim. We need a pay rise to match the rising cost of living. I think the public are still behind us. Everyone, even if they are not on strike themselves, knows somebody who is. Everyone is feeling the pinch. Everyone is standing together.”

Birmingham: “It’s nerve-racking but it’s been positive”

In Birmingham, there were picket lines dotted across the city from 8:00 A.M., with groups of strikers in hi-vis jackets waving flags and placards receiving the occasional thumbs-up or beep of a car horn in support from passersby.

“It’s always nerve-racking putting your fight in front of the people, which is what we’re doing, but it’s just been positive,” said Justin Price, a PCS union rep outside the Gambling Commission office in Victoria Square where civil servants were striking. “I think everyone understands the cost-of-living crisis and can sympathize with having a fair, inflation-based wage increase.”

He said many strikers had found it empowering to be part of a national day of strike action across multiple sectors and unions, and it had helped harden resolve to secure a pay rise. “It’s the camaraderie and solidarity of unions, and the collective action. Being visible as a show of solidarity, it’s exciting. With the RMT and Aslef being the flagbearers at the start of last year, it has inspired people to say, yeah, we deserve a raise, we deserve not to be going to food banks and to be struggling, we can do what they’re doing.”

Around the corner, outside a West Midlands government office hub, another union rep said morale in the civil service was particularly low. “For many years now, civil servants have faced declining living standards, less job security, and poorer pensions. Despite the fact inflation is clearly high at the moment, we received only an average three percent pay increase, so that’s a seven-eight percent real-terms cut,” he said. “I’ve given my life to the civil service, I’m civil service to my core, but it’s just not right and it’s not fair.”

He said he hoped this year’s strikes would act as a tipping point. “History will show us, but maybe one day, looking back, 2023 will be seen as the year where people decided that we could have a better country, and we could have a better life.”

Across the city, at the University of Birmingham, university staff had set up picket lines at the campus gates on the first of ten days of strike action the UCU branch has planned for February. Staff are calling on universities to improve their four-five percent pay offer and, as part of a longer-running dispute, revoke pensions cuts.

Anke Buttner, the secretary of the university’s UCU branch, said union staff were frustrated that their demands were being called “woke.” “When trying to raise basic issues is being referred to as woke, I think we’re missing a lack of basic empathy,” she said. “But with today’s strikes, it’s hugely encouraging to see that you’re not the only one shouting into the void. There’s a lot of us.”

Harjinder Kaur-Aujla, the president of the UCU branch, said: “It feels like the whole population is being gaslit. It’s like the government are saying there isn’t a problem. But then how can all these unions be saying there is a problem?”

London: “We’re striking for the future of education”

Outside Bishop Thomas Grant school in Streatham, south London, dozens of teachers joined a picket line, protesting against what they say are untenable conditions in the education sector for staff and students. Amid chants of “teachers say fair pay,” Diane Wilkinson, a languages teacher and the school’s NEU rep, said she and her colleagues were striking as a last resort.

“The government haven’t been listening to us, and like much of the public sector we have experienced a real-terms pay cut in the last ten years which has been exacerbated by the cost of living crisis,” she said. “A knock-on effect of that is that we don’t have enough teachers coming into the profession. So, we’re striking for the future of education.”

Wilkinson has seen first-hand the effects of the lack of government funding for the sector, most notably regarding recruitment. “It’s very difficult to find teachers for various subjects, and here we have people teaching exam subjects which they are not qualified to teach,” she said. “It’s only going to get worse.”

Lucy MacDonald, an English teacher, said the lack of investment in the education sector could be seen day to day. “For English, we have to rely on very old books which are used throughout the years which are falling apart and have to be taped together. We simply don’t have the money to replace them.”

Bell Ribeiro-Addy, the MP for Streatham, showed her support for the strikers. “They’re not just striking because [some teachers] are living within in-work poverty, they’re striking because they want a better service for the children they teach. But they can’t do that at the moment under the current conditions,” she said. “Under the Tories, public sector pay has stagnated and living conditions have gotten worse. We need to invest more in our teachers.”

The Guardian, February 1, 2023