UK: Thousands walk off the job in pension protests

Associated Press
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LONDON (AP) — British teachers and public sector workers swapped classrooms and offices for picket lines Thursday in what unions hope will be the first unrest in a summer of discontent against the Conservative-led government's austerity plans.

Airport operators warned there could be long lines at immigration entry points because of walkouts by passport officers, but most of Britain's airports, including Heathrow and Manchester, said it was business as usual.

Unions estimated that up to 750,000 teachers and civil servants joined the one-day strike, affecting courthouses, tax offices and employment centers, as well as schools.

Thousands of union members marched through London and other cities to demand that the government rethink its plans to curb public sector pensions. Small groups of anti-capitalist protesters scuffled with police as the march neared Parliament, and were cordoned in by officers. Police said 41 people had been arrested for offenses including possession of drugs, criminal damage and breach of the peace.

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 for one of the unions, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, Thursday was its first strike in its 127-year history.

Their leaders say they have no choice. They say their members worked many years for modest pay, on the promise of a solid pension, and accuse the government of reneging on that deal.

Helen Andrews of the National Union of Teachers told a rally in the city of Manchester that teachers were being asked to "pay more, work longer, get less."

Prime Minister "David Cameron has accused teachers of a lack of morality," she said. "Who really lacks morality? The thief or those who try to stop the thief?"

Thursday's walkouts weren't as dramatic as the rioting in Greece, which faces far more severe cuts, but unions hope to send a strong message of opposition to Britain's government and its austerity plans.

The government insists everyone must share the pain as it cuts 80 billion pounds ($130 billion) from public spending to reduce Britain's huge deficit, swollen after the government 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 their retirement payouts.

The two sides gave widely differing assessments of the level of disruption.

Schools were the hardest hit. The government said 11,000 schools were closed or partially closed, more than half the total of 21,000 in England and Wales.

The Metropolitan Police said almost all of its civilian staff who answer emergency and non-emergency calls had walked out. The force drafted in police officers to fill the gap.

The government said job centers, courts and government call centers were all operating as normal, and "less than half" of civil servants in the striking unions had stayed away.

But Mark Serwotka, head of the civil service PCS union, said 85 percent of his members were out on strike — including some members of Cameron's 10 Downing Street.

Cameron's office said "fewer than five" Downing Street staffers had stayed away, and the strike had had "minimal impact" on the public.

Cameron spokesman Steve Field said passengers were not suffering serious delays at airports or ports, despite walkouts by some border agency staff.

"The early indications, and it is quite early still, are that the turnout is lower than perhaps the unions had claimed," Field said.

Serwotka insisted the turnout for the strike was high.

"It's time for the government to engage properly," he said. "It has shown it is unwilling to move on any of the central issues — that public sector workers will have to work up to eight years longer, thousands of jobs are at stake, lower pensions are set to cost three times as much, and pay is frozen while inflation soars."

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David Stringer contributed to this report. Jill Lawless can be reached at http://twitter.com/JillLawless

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