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 that the number was much smaller, with Prime Minister David Cameron describing the one-day job action as “a damp squib.”
About three-quarters of the country’s schools were shuttered or short-staffed, leaving parents scrambling to find childcare alternatives. Thousands of nonemergency 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 at British airports that the government had warned of 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.
News reports suggested that the process was actually faster than usual, perhaps because some airlines had canceled flights in anticipation of the strike. The government dragooned employees from other departments to help with border control, including workers from Cameron’s office at 10 Downing St.
Still, the walkout disrupted the lives and routines of millions of Britons and added to the wave of social 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% 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.”
Many of those out on strike lambasted a government that they see as in thrall to the super-rich and to high-flying financiers, who continue to collect eye-popping bonuses from their jobs at banks bailed out during the global financial meltdown with taxpayer funds.
“Some people seem to have plenty of money to spend,” said teacher Clare Law. “No one’s convinced me of the case for cutting the pay, the pensions of the poorest people of society.”
Unions said the national strike would feature greater female participation than in any previous large-scale industrial action in British history. Critics say women are being hit harder by the government’s austerity cuts and the move to limit public-sector pay and pensions.
In the battle for hearts and minds, activists were quick to apologize to the general public for inconvenience caused by the job walkout.
Alexina Golding, who runs a cake-making business from her home near Cambridge, was ambivalent about the strikers and their cause.
“Part of me goes, ‘Yeah, it’s not an easy job they do anyway,’ and the other part says, ‘I’m afraid that’s the way the economy is,’” said Golding, who had to keep her two young children at home Wednesday.
Officials had warned that the strike would cost the British economy up to $800 million. By contrast, the government’s decision to declare a national holiday for Prince William’s wedding in April resulted in estimated losses of more than 10 times that.
For Law, the teacher, going out on strike meant personal sacrifice.
“Nobody wants to lose a day’s pay,” she said. “But it’s worth it.”
News assistant Janet Stobart contributed to this report.