Biggest walkout since Thatcher era shakes UK
LONDON - Reuters
Health workers demonstrate during a strike over pensions outside St. Thomas’ Hospital in London yesterday. The one-day strike has been called to oppose government demands that public sector staff work longer before receiving a pension. AP photoTeachers, nurses and border guards walked out yesterday as up to two million state workers staged Britain’s first mass strike for more than 30 years in a growing confrontation with a deficit-cutting coalition government.
Public sector employees are protesting over reforms that unions say will force them to work for longer before they can retire, and pay more for pensions which will be worth less.
Their anger has been fuelled by new curbs on their pay and additional job cuts outlined on Tuesday when the Conservative-led government cut economic growth forecasts and said its tough austerity program would last until 2017.
“Why is the government picking on us in the public sector?,” asked Kevin Smith, 54, outside parliament in London, where he works as a security officer.
“We are going to get a 1 percent pay rise for the next three years. We had no rise the last two years, before that we were getting lower than inflation rises. So how long is it going to last?”
Finance minister George Osborne condemned the strike that has closed most schools in England and Wales and forced hospital to cancel all but the most urgent operations.
“The strike is not going to achieve anything. It’s not going to change anything,” Osborne told BBC TV. “It is only going to make our economy weaker and potentially cost jobs.”
‘People live longer’
The government, trying to turn around a debt-laden economy teetering on recession, says reform is needed as people are living longer and public service pensions are unaffordable.
The strikes mirror protests in continental European countries where governments are trying to juggle budget deficits with the needs of an ageing population.
Airlines said they were cutting flights into London Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport, because of fears of long delays and overcrowding due to the passport control strike.
The government has flown some embassy staff home and recruited volunteers from other departments to help take the place of striking border guards and delays that had been feared had not materialized yesterday morning.
“Due to the effective contingency plans we have put in place with the airlines and the UK Border Agency over recent days, immigration queues are currently at normal levels,” airport operator BAA said.
Passengers arriving later in the day could face delays, it added.
At Heathrow, a marquee, rows of chairs and toilets had been set up outside in preparation for overcrowding.
Brendan Barber, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, an umbrella group coordinating the strike, said workers were no longer being asked to make “a temporary sacrifice, but accept a permanent deep cut” in living standards.
A coalition of 30 trade unions are taking part in the strike, billed as the biggest walkout since action during the “Winter of Discontent” in 1979 that helped Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher sweep to power.