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Widespread strike in Britain was coordinated to have the greatest impact

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Roughly half a million workers went out on strike in the U.K. yesterday, the largest single day of industrial action in Britain for more than a decade. They included teachers, civil servants, border force agents, as well as bus and train drivers. The strike was coordinated by unions to have the biggest impact. We're joined now from London by reporter Willem Marx for an update on this ongoing winter of discontent. Good morning.

WILLEM MARX: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So Willem, what factors united so many different kinds of workers together for this huge strike?

MARX: Well, ultimately, this was about pay levels. Every single one of these professions and the unions that represent them are demanding higher wages at a time when living costs in Britain are much higher than they were even several months ago. Inflation linked to higher energy prices has created some really big problems for people not only for their heating and their electric bills, but even the cost of food in the grocery stores here. It's up more than 10% year on year.

Without corresponding increases for their pay, of course, many people are struggling to make ends meet. And all of these kinds of jobs in Britain that we've mentioned there, they have their wages in some sense controlled by the government. That might be obvious, say, with civil servants or border force agents. But even the companies that run the trains here in the U.K., they do serve as franchises controlled by the government. So they're not really able to pay their workers more without the government ultimately approving it. And the government has really dragged its feet over these pay increases.

FADEL: So a really difficult time for people to make ends meet, their wages not keeping up. So what's the government's reason for not boosting salaries?

MARX: One of the big challenges for the government, led by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, is to bring inflation under control. And by increasing pay in the public sector by even a few percentage points, that will potentially mean pumping billions of dollars of fresh money into the economy each year, which is unlikely to help reduce inflation. And then on top of that, the government's own finances are already pretty tight. The economy's not really growing here. The amount of money available from taxes is therefore not growing either. And because of high interest rates at the moment, it's expensive for the government to borrow money to pay higher wages to these workers.

Now, interestingly, the Labour opposition party says the Conservative government is actually stoking some of these disputes for political purposes, potentially hoping the broader public will be so frustrated by all this disruption, the striking workers will start to lose public support. But so far, I've got to say, that's not proven to be the case for quite a few of the professions you just mentioned involved in these strikes, particularly health workers and nurses. They're striking this year for the first time in the history of Britain's National Health Service. And people have, for the most part, been pretty supportive about their higher wage demands.

FADEL: But what's been the impact of all these people striking not working? What are the implications for coming weeks, months, if these disputes are not resolved over pay?

MARX: Well, yesterday, 1 in 10 schools across England and Wales were closed. The vast majority of others were significantly impacted by the loss of teachers. Interestingly, as an aside, polls are showing that parents were broadly supportive of these strikes.

FADEL: Yeah.

MARX: On some strike days, you have Britain's train services essentially grinding to a halt in some parts of the country. And of course, there are implications for all this. If parents can't go to work, if commuters can't get to their offices, the overall economy suffers. And some experts worry that the cost to the national economy of fighting these wage increases will ultimately end up being higher than it would have been had the government simply implemented some of these increases earlier. Rishi Sunak's office says the prime minister's now getting more directly involved in talks with the unions. And the government does insist it needs to balance the need to keep public sector workers happy with what they call fairness for Britain's taxpayers, Leila.

FADEL: Willem Marx in London. Thank you so much, Willem.

MARX: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Willem Marx
[Copyright 2024 NPR]