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Teachers, civil servants among 750,000 on strike in UK

Public sector workers take part in a march on Thursday in Bristol, England.
Public sector workers take part in a march on Thursday in Bristol, England.Getty Images
/ Source: news services

British teachers and civil servants went on strike on Thursday over plans to reform public-sector pensions.

Up to 750,000 public-sector workers — including driving examiners and customs officials — were expected to join the walkout, part of a growing wave of opposition to the Conservative-led government's deficit-cutting regime of tax hikes, benefit curbs and spending cuts.

Mirroring protests across continental Europe against government-imposed austerity, the strike could be a taste of wider protests to come later this year.

Many schools across Britain were closed or classes disrupted and air passengers were expected to face delays because immigration officials were among the striking workers. Courts and government buildings were also affected.

The unions say the strike is just the start of a campaign of labor action on a scale unseen in Britain for three decades.

"On Thursday we will see hundreds of thousands of civil and public servants on strike," said Mark Serwotka, leader of the Public and Commercial Services Union. "We fully expect to be joined by millions more in the autumn."

Prime Minister David Cameron has condemned the strikes as irresponsible, saying that talks between unions and ministers have not concluded.

The government insists everyone must share the pain as it cuts 80 billion pounds ($130 billion) from public spending to reduce the huge deficit, swollen after Britain spent billions bailing out foundering banks. It is cutting civil service jobs and benefits, raising the state pension age from 65 to 66, hiking the amount public-sector employees contribute to pensions and reducing the payouts they get on retirement.

The government says the measures are tough but fair, and is gambling that the public will blame unions for any inconvenience caused by the strikes.

"The public have a very low tolerance for anything that disrupts their hardworking lifestyles," said Education Secretary Michael Gove. He said the strike would hurt "the respect in which teachers should be held."

While some British trade unions — such as those representing London subway drivers — have a reputation for frequent strikes, their public sector counterparts are traditionally moderate. There has not been a national strike by teachers since the 1980s, and one of the unions, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, has never been on strike in its 127-year history.

Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude said the government had met unions on Monday for talks and would meet them again next week.

"It is absolutely unjustifiable for parents up and down the country to be inconvenienced like this, forced to lose a day's work when they are trying to go out to work to earn money to pay the taxes that are going to support teachers' pensions," Maude told the BBC.

Cameron argues that longer life expectancy means that public sector pensions must change to ensure that they are affordable. The changes are part of government plans by 2015 to virtually wipe out a budget deficit that peaked at more than 10 percent.

Job insecurity
Workers face higher contributions to their pensions and longer working lives. The proposals have hit a raw nerve at a time of wage freezes and job insecurity.

Union leaders assert that their members are bearing the brunt of a financial crisis caused by rich bankers.

"It is hardly surprising that public-sector workers are on strike today," said Brendan Barber, head of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) union body.

"They know that they are being asked to play an unfair part in deficit reduction. What adds insult to injury is that this is wrapped up in attacks on public service pensions as gold-plated, unreformed and unsustainable," he added.

UNSPECIFIED, UNITED KINGDOM - JUNE 30: Union members hold a placards outside the Department for Education building as industrial action gets under way on June 30, 2011 in London, United Kingdom. Around 600,000 public sector workers including teachers and civil servants accross the UK are to stage a mass strike today in protest at the governments planned cuts to pensions. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)Dan Kitwood / Getty Images Europe

British right-wing newspapers backed Cameron, head of the right-leaning Conservative Party, and the Daily Mail newspaper covered its front page with a "Defy the strike bullies" headline. The Telegraph highlighted the "generosity" of current public-sector pensions on its front page.

'Failure on both sides'
Even the coverage of left-leaning newspapers like the Guardian and the Mirror was not without criticism, highlighting the unpopularity of strikes among many private sector workers who say they have already had to deal with tougher pension terms and see no reason why public-sector workers should be protected.

The opposition Labour Party, the union movement's ostensible ally, also advised against strikes. Labour leader Ed Miliband wrote on his blog that the walkouts were "a mistake" and "a sign of failure on both sides."

Analysts say the protests are a test of the government's resolve after it retreated on plans to restructure the state-funded National Health Service following lobbying from the medical profession.

Thursday's protests involve about one in eight public sector workers, but other unions are gearing up for stoppages later this year if talks break down.

Some Britons sympathize with the strikers but others say they are being unrealistic at a time when households have suffered their biggest fall in disposable income for more than 30 years.

"The state of the country is pretty bad. They are a bit too focused on themselves," said Michael Hayes, a railway manager from the London suburb of Chingford.