Two million strike in Britain over pension changes


Up to two million public sector workers in Britain went on strike Wednesday over changes to their pensions, after the government responded to slashed growth forecasts with fresh spending cuts. In what unions said was the biggest walkout in decades, only one school in 10 in England was fully open, hospitals were operating with skeleton staff and local authorities were paralysed.
Striking workers picketed parliament and public sector buildings in central London and more than 1,000 demonstrations were planned across Britain during the 24-hour strike in scenes reminiscent of the 1970s.
However, fears of long delays at London’s Heathrow airport, one of the world’s busiest air hubs, failed to materialise as two-thirds of immigration officials turned up for work.
Cross-channel rail services were also operating largely as normally, as were the Channel ports. The strike is the biggest test so far of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat government, which sparked the unions’ fury by making public sector workers pay more into their pensions and work longer.
Anger rose further on Tuesday when finance minister George Osborne targeted the pay of teachers, nurses and soldiers and revealed plans to cut an extra 300,000 public sector jobs as he sharply reduced Britain’s growth forecasts. Osborne infuriated the unions by announcing a new two-year, one-percent cap on public sector pay rises.
On Wednesday, Osborne he warned that the strike would only harm the economy, and called for unions to return to negotiations.
“The strike is not going to achieve anything, it’s not going to change anything,” the Chancellor of the Exchequer told BBC TV. “It is only going to make our economy weaker and potentially cost jobs.
“So let’s get back round the negotiating table, let’s get a pension deal that is fair to the public sector, that gives decent pensions for many, many decades to come but which this county can also afford and our taxpayers can afford.”
Cameron underlined the government’s message, telling parliament he was angry that the strike was called “at a time when negotiations are still under way” and downplayed the turnout, calling it a “damp squib”.
The unions were unrepentant.
Brendan Barber, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), said the government has put the public sector “under attack” and the strike was fully justified.
“There comes a time when people really have to stand up and make a stand,” he told ITV.
“With the scale of change the government are trying to force through, making people work much, much longer and get much, much less, that’s the call people have made.”