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Up to 2 million strike over UK austerity cuts

Hundreds of thousands of teachers, nurses and border guards protesting over pension reform staged Britain's first mass strike for more than 30 years Wednesday.
Image: Workers picket outside the Bournbrook Ambulance Station during a public sector strike over pensions in Birmingham, England.
Workers picket outside the Bournbrook Ambulance Station during a public sector strike over pensions in Birmingham Wednesday.Paul Ellis / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Paramedics, emergency crews, teachers and even some employees from the prime minister's office took to the streets of Britain Wednesday for the country's largest strike in decades — drawing attention to government cuts but failing to bring the nation to a standstill.

Up to 2 million public sector employees staged the one-day walkout over government demands that they work longer before receiving a pension and pay more in monthly contributions, part of austerity measures to tackle Britain's 967 billion-pound ($1.5 trillion) debt.

The strike came a day after the government announced that public sector pay raises will be limited to 1 percent through 2014 — even as inflation now runs about 5 percent.

London's Heathrow Airport and airlines had warned international travelers that they could be delayed for up to 12 hours at immigration halls because of the strike, but flights arriving Wednesday from the United States, Asia and Europe were largely unaffected — in part because of contingency plans to staff immigration desks. Those extra staff included members of Cameron's policy unit and his press secretary.

At London's Hammersmith Hospital, the corridors were quieter than usual as fewer patients were being treated. Some medical technicians were on strike and in some departments only emergency operations were being performed. There were similar staff shortages at many other hospitals.

"The government wants us to work longer, pay more and at the end get less. How fair is that?" said Eleanor Smith, president of the UNISON trade union which represents about 1 million health, education and law enforcement staff. Smith joined a picket outside Birmingham Women's Hospital in central England, where she works as a nurse.

About two-thirds of England's 21,700 state-run schools were closed as teachers joined the strike. Health officials said 60,000 non-urgent operations and appointments had been postponed in advance in England, while in Scotland at least 3,000 operations and thousands more appointments were canceled.

London's ambulance service said it was responding to life-threatening injuries only. Some police forces warned those calling a non-emergency number that they may need to leave a message and wait for a response.

Prime Minister David Cameron defended the government's stance in Parliament, insisting that "as people live longer it's only right and only fair that you should make greater contributions."

"I don't want to see any strikes, I don't want to see schools closed, I don't want see problems at our borders, but this government must make responsible decisions," Cameron told the House of Commons.

Len McCluskey, general secretary of the large Unite union, told The Guardian newspaper that "working people are being asked to pay for the economic mess caused by the greedy City [financial sector center] elite whose behavior this spineless government has repeatedly failed to tackle."

"This is a government that will snatch at least 16 per cent of income from public sector workers by holding down their pay for four years — but leaves the banking tax at a paltry 0.08 per cent," he added. "The action today has been a brilliant display of courage and concern by public servants who are being demonized by a government that has lost its moral compass."

A government report found U.K. taxpayers contribute about 32 billion pounds ($50 billion) each year to public sector pensions, and warned the gap between contributions and payments could rise to 9 billion pounds ($14 billion) by 2015.

A small number of separate protesters, meanwhile, stormed an office in London's West End as night fell. Police said 21 arrests had been made there and the incident was unrelated to the strike.

Police said late Wednesday that a march and demonstration in central London was "a peaceful affair," though a small number of groups unconnected to the main march came to commit crime.

London police said altogether 75 people had been arrested in the protests, including 37 people detained after clashes at a rally in Hackney, east London.