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Tens of thousands of U.K. public sector workers are striking

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: What do we want?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Fair pay.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: When do we want it?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Make some noise.

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Tens of thousands of nurses walked out today in the biggest strike in the history of Britain's National Health Service. They're joining striking rail workers, mail carriers and some airport immigration officers in the largest series of labor actions in the U.K. in more than a decade. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from London.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: There are a couple hundred nurses protesting out in front of a hospital here. It's just across the river from Big Ben, and they're holding up a bunch of signs. One says, can anyone find my friends? They all quit. Another says, currently nursing my inadequate pay. And just a moment ago, I was talking to a nurse. Her name is Rosie Woods.

ROSIE WOODS: I think that nurses need to be given a pay rise that matches inflation because the cost of living has shot up so much. And you've literally got nurses visiting food banks.

LANGFITT: Rising energy prices stemming from Russia's war in Ukraine and post-pandemic supply chain problems have driven inflation here to nearly 11%. The National Health Service, which provides free care, has by most accounts been underfunded and hemorrhaging workers for years. Woods focuses on identifying children who may be victims of domestic violence. She says because of low pay and high turnover, hundreds of children fall through the cracks.

WOODS: We regularly work over hours with caseloads that are unsafe and too big to manage. So it's just an accident waiting to happen, and they don't do anything until another child dies.

LANGFITT: The nurses are demanding a 19% raise, but Woods thinks they'll settle for less. Either way, the government here says it simply can't afford it. Officials say the economy is already in recession, and heavy public spending during the pandemic helped blow a $67 billion hole in the U.K. budget. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak insists the government is doing a lot to help its beleaguered health service, known as the NHS.

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PRIME MINISTER RISHI SUNAK: We're already investing billions more in the NHS. We're already hiring thousands more doctors and nurses. Last year, when everyone else in the public sector had a public sector pay freeze, the nurses received a 3% pay rise.

LANGFITT: Some of those public service workers who had their wages frozen. They're striking, too. On Wednesday, more than 100,000 postal workers walked out. So did rail workers, cutting train operations across the country by 80%. Matthew Lee, a train guard, was picketing in front of London's King's Cross Station, which was nearly empty.

MATTHEW LEE: I was talking to one of my colleagues the other day where she's not eating dinner even to put food on the table at night. All she wants to do is have the money to feed her kids.

LANGFITT: Susan Milner is a professor of European politics who researches labor relations at the University of Bath. She says one reason so many public service workers are walking out now is because of the global financial crisis more than a decade ago. In the wake of that crash, the British government made massive cuts, and workers never regained their purchasing power.

SUSAN MILNER: So in general terms, we are poorer in our incomes than, say, pre-2008.

LANGFITT: And Milner says money isn't the only reason the government is resisting union demands.

MILNER: There are political reasons here as well, ideological reasons, I think, for a Conservative government that wants to see itself as not giving in to unions. And in the Conservative leadership contest over the summer, certainly, there was a lot of rhetoric about having a hard line on trade unions and strikes.

LANGFITT: As cars pass the protesting nurses this morning, many honk in support. But there is public opposition to the mass strikes, especially because they're coming during the holiday season. Scott Arthur works in a hotel in Newcastle. He's not sympathetic to railway workers like Matthew Lee.

SCOTT ARTHUR: A load of rubbish. They've had a lot of taxpayer's money. Margaret Thatcher sorted them all out. And it's a shame she's gone. And now we're back to square one, being held to ransom.

LANGFITT: Arthur's referring to Britain's Iron Lady, who's credited with crushing trade unions here back in the 1980s. Trade union membership is a lot smaller now, but workers are hoping their collective action can still bring big concessions from the British government. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.