LONDON – Teachers, doctors, court reporters, border-control agents, ambulance drivers and other public-sector workers walked off the job across Britain on Wednesday in a massive protest against the government’s plans to overhaul their pensions.
Unions estimated that as many as 2 million state employees went on strike, which would make it the biggest mass industrial action this nation has seen in at least a generation. The government insisted the number was much smaller.
About three-quarters of the country’s schools were shuttered or short-staffed. Thousands of non-emergency operations and medical procedures were postponed at state-run hospitals. Ferries didn’t cross the Mersey in Liverpool, and commuters in Newcastle-upon-Tyne found the city’s subway closed down.
But to the relief of air travelers, the chaos that the government had warned would hit British airports did not materialize. Heathrow Airport in London, Europe’s busiest, functioned smoothly, despite ominous warnings that passengers might have to wait up to 12 hours to get through immigration and customs.
Still, the walkout disrupted the lives and routines of millions of Britons, and added to the wave of unrest barreling through Europe. Countries such as Greece, Italy and Portugal have been hit by huge demonstrations and strikes against the brutal austerity measures that many European governments have been forced to adopt to bring down deficits and beat back the continent’s relentless debt crisis.
Here in Britain, public-sector workers are angry over the Conservative-led government’s plans for them to work longer before they retire and to contribute more to their pensions. Negotiations over those measures are ongoing, but officials say an overhaul is unavoidable given longer life expectancies and government budgets in the red.
For elementary school teacher Michael Holland, that would mean working up to eight years more than he’d planned and paying in as much as $155 extra each month. It’s money he and his wife would find hard to spare, especially since the government announced Tuesday that raises for state workers would be capped at 1 percent for two years starting in 2013, far below the current rate of inflation.
“We’ve got to make a stand now,” said Holland, who joined a raucous march in central London. “If we don’t win on this, the Tories will come and take bloody everything. … They can afford to send troops to the Middle East, to Afghanistan. All that money we spend on arms should be spent in this country.”