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U.K. Government Says Fewer Workers Struck Than Unions Estimate

Prime Minister David Cameron’s government disputed U.K. labor-union estimates that 2 million public-sector workers went on strike over pension curbs yesterday, saying the number who walked out was much lower.

About 900,000 civil servants, local-government and health workers took action, the Cabinet Office in London said in an e-mailed statement last night. It said final numbers for teachers weren’t available, though about 30 percent of schools were at least partially open during the one-day stoppage.

Members of 30 public-sector unions protested plans to make government employees retire later and contribute more to their pensions. The Trades Union Congress, Britain’s umbrella labor movement, said as many as 2 million workers took part.

“This figure is wrong,” the Cabinet Office said. “The figures we have show turnout was much lower than these claims and significantly less than the unions predicted. In health, civil service and local government there were approximately 900,000 people on strike.”

The Cabinet Office said final figures showed 146,000 central-government civil servants walked out, less than a third of the total, while only 14 of more than 900 Jobcentres, as unemployment offices are known, were closed and immigration controls at ports and airports suffered “only minimal disruption.”

About 79,000 health-service staff, less than 15 percent, failed to show up for work, the government said. Thirty-two percent of local-government staff in England and Wales also went on strike, according to the Cabinet Office.

Deficit Cutting

Ministers say the pension changes, part of Cameron’s program of spending cuts to narrow the budget deficit, are fair because workers who contribute to public-sector pensions get benefits no longer available in the private sector.

The prime minister told lawmakers in the House of Commons the strike was “something of a damp squib.”

Even so, the London Ambulance Service said yesterday afternoon it was “under severe pressure” as a result of the strike, according to its website.

Liz Chinchen, a TUC spokeswoman, said the government’s numbers were wrong and that 30,000 people had joined a rally in London.

“We’re very pleased with how today went,” she said by phone last night. “For the prime minister to call it a damp squib is so patronizing to all those people, many of whom were taking strike action for the first time.”

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