U.K. public-sector workers went on strike today, closing schools and museums to protest curbs on pensions. A walkout by immigration staff caused little disruption at airports.
The government said just under 100,000 civil servants, less than 25 percent of the total, were on strike at noon. It disputed Public and Commercial Services Union estimates that 90 percent of its members in the Department for Work and Pensions were on strike and that 85 percent of staff at the Revenue and Customs service stayed away from work.
Four unions with 750,000 members staged the one-day strike to fight proposals for government employees to retire later and contribute more to their pensions. The government says the changes are essential to make pensions sustainable and help trim the U.K.’s fiscal deficit.
“The vast majority of hard-working public-sector employees do not support today’s premature strike and have come into work,” Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said in an e-mailed statement. “Reform of public-sector pensions is inevitable.”
British Airways and BAA Ltd., which runs London Heathrow, Europe’s biggest hub, and five other U.K. airports, said there were no delays at passport control as a result of the immigration officers’ action.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman, Steve Field, told reporters that 48 percent of the 21,565 schools in England and Wales were closed or only partially open, with no information on another 29 percent. Most services at the tax-collection and employment agencies were still running, he said. The PCS said its members closed all national museums in Wales.
London’s Metropolitan Police said more than 90 percent of communications-center staff went on strike, delaying the average time taken to answer an emergency call to 15 seconds, compared with the 10-second target
“This is the best supported strike we’ve ever had,” PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka said in an e-mailed statement. Union members have “sent a clear message to the government that they will not tolerate these attacks on their hard-earned pensions rights.”
Maude said less than half the union’s members were on strike and fewer had walked out than in previous disputes in 2004 and 2007.
“We will ensure that public-sector pensions will still be among the very best, with a guaranteed pension which very few private-sector staff now enjoy,” he said. “But they will be paid later because people live longer. And public-sector staff will pay more, for a fairer balance between what they pay and what other taxpayers pay.”
Members of the PCS, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the National Union of Teachers and the University and College Union marched through central London and held demonstrations in other cities.
“The government’s broken a contract they made,” said Mike Hensmen, 62, who works for the National Apprenticeship Service and was part of a three-man picket outside the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in London. “You can negotiate new contracts and new conditions for people who join, but I don’t believe you should drive down conditions for existing staff. They’re trying to drive down conditions.”
Heathrow and London’s third airport, Stansted, reported normal operations.
“There are currently no significant issues at Heathrow,” BAA spokeswoman Claire Lovelady said by phone. “It looks like the problem may not be as great as some people thought.”
At Stansted, the biggest base for Ryanair Holdings Plc, “there’s no disruption at all so far,” BAA spokesman Mark Davison said. The U.K. Border Agency added extra workers as cover for strikers with the result that staffing levels may actually be higher than normal, he said.
Cameron’s Conservative-led administration is starting to feel public pressure over its efforts to cut the budget deficit, which will see the loss of more than 300,000 jobs in government by 2015. The proposed overhaul of pensions comes at a time when the economy is barely growing and inflation is outpacing pay increases.
‘Reasoned and Reasonable’
“We’re not seeking to be at loggerheads with the trade unions, we all agree -- across the political spectrum -- that public-sector pensions need to be reformed,” Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg told reporters. “We want to do that in a reasoned and reasonable way, but that reform does have to happen.”
“We’re not saying no to change, we’re not saying no to reality,” ATL President Andy Brown told a rally in London. “We want to work with the government, we’ve offered time and again to sit down and negotiate but we can’t do it with the loaded gun of these proposals to our head.”
It’s the first time the union has been on strike.
The opposition Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, called on both sides to resolve the dispute through talks.
“The strikes are wrong because negotiations are still going on, but parents and the public have been let down by the government as well, who have acted in a reckless and provocative manner,” Miliband told BBC television. “Both sides should, after today’s disruption, get around the negotiating table, put aside the rhetoric and stop this kind of thing happening again.”