Up to half a million British teachers, civil servants, train drivers and university lecturers have walked off their jobs to demand better pay and working conditions in the largest coordinated strike action in a generation as wages fail to keep pace with soaring inflation.
About 300,000 people on strike on Wednesday are teachers, according to the Trades Union Congress.
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Teachers at schools across England and Wales formed picket lines as they called for higher salaries in demonstrations that have divided public opinion.
Some locals in cars beeped their horns and raised a fist in solidarity as they drove past while others questioned teachers on their motives.
Learning and working from home reminiscent of COVID-19 lockdowns returned to many households as school gates were closed and most trains were halted.
According to a YouGov poll late last year, 59 percent of respondents were in favour of the education sector striking.
The National Education Union said about 23,000 schools will be affected on Wednesday with an estimated 85 percent fully or partially closed.
Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who joined striking workers in London, called for a “fairer taxation system”.
“This country cannot afford the levels of inequality we have,” Corbyn told Al Jazeera.
“There are more billionaires in Britain than ever before,” he said. “Many people, billionaires and millionaires, made a lot of money during COVID-19. They haven’t been taxed for it.”
Jack, a striking teacher, told Al Jazeera that it was “almost impossible” to help every child who needs support under the current working conditions.
“Teachers are not just teachers,” he said. “They are social workers. They are nurses. They are all sorts of different professions within the job itself. And on an emotional side, it’s not sustainable for teaching long term.”
Other workers also on strike range from museum employees and London bus drivers to coastguards and border officials manning passport control booths at airports.
More action, including by nurses and ambulance workers, is planned for the coming days and weeks.
Union bosses say that despite some pay rises – such as a 5 percent offer the government proposed to teachers – wages in the public sector have failed to keep up with skyrocketing prices, effectively meaning workers have been taking a pay cut.
The Trades Union Congress says the average public sector worker is 203 pounds ($250) a month worse off compared with 2010 when inflation is been taken into account.
Al Jazeera’s Neave Barker, reporting from the UK Parliament, said teachers are demanding significant pay increases to beat the “soaring levels of inflation that currently stand at around 10.5 percent, the highest among the G7 group of advanced economies”.
“Many teachers are saying, ‘Look, we cannot afford 2023 prices given that many of us are still earning what we were earning a decade ago,’” he said.
On Monday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told public health workers he met on a visit: “I would love, nothing more would give me more pleasure, than to wave a magic wand and have all of you paid lots more.”
“An important part of us getting a grip on inflation and halving it is making sure the government’s responsible with its borrowing because, if that gets out of control, that makes it worse, and it’s about making pay settlements reasonable and fair.”
Education minister Gillian Keegan said on Wednesday that higher wage increases would fuel inflation further and the government’s response was unchanged.
Mary Bousted, head of the National Education Union, gave the government a deadline.
“We want this to be a one-day strike, and what I would say to the government is that you have now got 27 days until the next strike in England, which is a regional strike in the northwest,” Bousted told Sky News. “That’s 27 days where you can sit down and really negotiate with us. We’re ready to do that.”
“We have to find a way to address the workforce crisis in our schools,” she said. “We have to find a way of a long-term correction for teachers’ pay, which has declined so drastically over the last 12 years, to a much worse extent than nearly any other profession.”