(Bloomberg) -- Swathes of office staff were forced to work from home Wednesday as widespread industrial action closed schools and crippled Britain’s rail network, while hundreds of members of the armed forces were drafted in to cover for strikes at the border.

As many as 475,000 union members are on strike, demanding pay rises that do more to combat the cost-of-living crisis. Many were given salary increases of less than 5% last year, even as inflation climbed above 10%.

“We want to have further talks with the unions, some of those discussions have been constructive,” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s spokesman Max Blain said Wednesday. “The government will continue to take responsible action to ensure public sector workers are paid fairly but that it’s also affordable for the taxpayer.”

The public should be prepared for disruption at airports and ports, he said. The government has provided 600 armed forces and around 180 civil servants, as Border Force officials are among the public sector workers on strike. The Department for Education said in a statement that about 9.3% of schools had fully closed, with another 44.7% open but restricting access.

Major train stations in London are completely closed, including Victoria, Cannon Street, Marylebone and London Bridge, while more than a dozen key commuter rail lines aren’t running any services.

Still, there was some good news for passengers as the RMT union said it would consider a new offer from Network Rail. It is currently considering a separate offer from Britain’s train companies, who have also proposed a deal to the TSSA, another major labor group. Wednesday’s strike is due to walkouts by drivers belonging to the Aslef union, which is expected to hold out longer for a more generous pay hike.

Mick Lynch, the RMT’s general secretary, said at a picket line that the wave of industrial action “started this summer with rail workers and has reached a crescendo today.”

Some 85% of schools in England and Wales were estimated to be closed or partly shuttered, according to the National Education Union. However, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said Wednesday morning that “the majority of schools” are open, with more precise figures to be published later today.

The day of coordinated industrial action is likely to be Britain’s most severe day of strikes for over a decade, piling pressure on Sunak’s Conservative administration to resolve disputes with public sector workers by making more generous offers on pay. Train drivers, teachers, university staff and civil servants are all protesting together.

Mass strikes may have cost the UK around £1.5 billion ($1.85 billion) in the final quarter of the year, according to Bloomberg Economics, with the economy expected to go backward in the first three months of 2023.

Even the UK’s markets watchdog is in the midst of a pay battle. A survey of 500 Financial Conduct Authority staff in January found that more than half of the regulator’s employees are considering leaving their jobs as a result of a recent pay deal, according to a press release Wednesday by the Unite union.

The past year have seen staff at the FCA strike as Chief Executive Officer Nikhil Rathi moves to reform its pay structures.

Read More: FCA Staff Vote to Strike Over ‘Unacceptable’ Pay Reforms (1)

Public Opinion

More than half the public believe Sunak’s government is doing a bad job of negotiating with unions to avoid public sector strikes, according to an Ipsos poll published Wednesday. Just 17% think ministers are doing a good job, while nearly a third — 31% — said Keir Starmer’s opposition Labour party would be handling the situation better if it was in power.

The strike by teachers in particular is likely to be disruptive, because many parents have to stay at home as a result. More than 100,000 teachers were expected to walk out of 23,000 schools in England and Wales. 

Teaching assistants have started quitting their jobs to work in shops, according to NEU Joint Secretary Kevin Courtney. “You can often get better pay in a supermarket for a less skilled and less responsible job,” he said Tuesday in an interview.

Among the civil servants on strike were Border Force officials at airports and major ports. Adding to the government’s woes, the Public and Commercial Services union said late Tuesday that about 1,000 border force officers who work across the Channel in Dover, Calais, Coquelles and Dunkirk will hold a four-day strike starting Feb. 17. That’s likely to disrupt holidaymakers returning to the UK by ferry during the school break.

On Wednesday, there were no Gatwick Express or Heathrow Express trains, which normally carry passengers between the air hubs and central London.

Heathrow said Wednesday morning that border control was operating as normal as no flights had been canceled.

Curbing Strikes

Negotiations with train drivers have “gone backwards,” according to Simon Weller, the Aslef union’s assistant general secretary. “We’re now in a worse place than we were six months ago.”

The Trades Union Congress last month called for workers to hold a “protect the right to strike” day on Feb. 1 in protest at legislation being pushed through Parliament that aims to restrict walkouts by certain key industries by imposing a minimum service level on strike days.

The legislation, which completed its passage through the House of Commons on Monday and now moves to the House of Lords, will set minimum requirements for operations on strike days by fire, ambulance and rail services, with penalties for not meeting them.

The planned law also covers health care, education, nuclear decommissioning, border security and other modes of transport, but those sectors will be subject to voluntary agreements on minimum service levels.

“Our message to ministers is this — stop attacking the right to strike and start negotiating with unions in good faith on public sector pay,” TUC General Secretary Paul Nowak said in a statement.

On Wednesday he added that he’s “not interested in beer and sandwiches or indeed tea and sympathy” and only wished to discuss higher pay for workers.

--With assistance from Ellen Milligan, Kitty Donaldson and Tom Metcalf.

(Updates with school closures in fourth paragraph.)

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