Members of the National Education Union protest over pay and working conditions during a march to the seat of parliament in Westminster, London on February 1, 2023.
London CNN  — 

As many as half a million workers are striking across Britain on Wednesday, closing schools, canceling university lectures and bringing most of the rail network to a standstill in what unions say is the biggest single day of walkouts in more than a decade.

Teachers, university staff, train drivers and civil servants — including staff checking passports at airports — are striking in large numbers over pay and working conditions as living standards continue to plunge after years of below-inflation raises.

At the same time, the Trades Union Congress, which represents 48 unions, is holding over 75 rallies across the United Kingdom to protest a government bill that it argues is an “attack” on the right to strike. The bill would require basic service levels to be maintained in the fire, ambulance and rail sectors in the event of walkouts.

Escalating strike action comes just weeks after the government tried to resolve pay disputes to bring an end to the worst wave of industrial unrest the country has seen in decades. Many public sector workers have been offered raises of 4% or 5% for the current financial year, with the annual rate of inflation running at 10.5%

Striking workers march in London on February 1, 2023 over pay, working conditions and a controversial government bill that will curb the right to strike.

Up to 300,000 teachers are expected to strike on Wednesday, marking the first of seven days of strike action through February and March by the National Education Union, the largest union in the sector. Strikes will affect around 23,400 schools, about 85%, in England and Wales, with many closed fully or partially.

Wednesday also marks the beginning of strikes by 70,000 members of the University and College Union (UCU), which will hit 150 UK universities on 18 days in February and March, affecting 2.5 million students.

Meanwhile, more than 100,000 members of the Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents civil servants, will strike over pay, pensions and job security at 123 government departments and agencies.

And only around 30% of train services are expected to run on Wednesday, according to Britain’s railway company Rail Delivery Group, which warned in a statement on its website that the disruption could drag on into the rest of the week because many trains won’t be in the right depots.

A train stopped at a platform in Waterloo Station, London, during Britain's biggest day of strikes in more than a decade on February 1, 2023.

Sliding towards recession

The strikes will take a toll on already slowing economic growth. The United Kingdom is likely to be the only major economy to fall into recession this year, after recording one of the strongest growth rates among advanced economies last year, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The IMF has marginally upgraded its forecast for global growth, on the back of China’s reopening and an improvement in financial conditions as inflation starts to ease.

On Britain, however, the fund has turned gloomier.

Research director Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas said this was because of higher energy prices, lower productivity as a result of employment not recovering to its pre-pandemic level and elevated inflation leading to higher interest rates and mortgage costs.