Tens of thousands of U.K. public-sector workers including immigration officials and college lecturers went on strike today to protest government plans to curb their pensions.
Unions said as many as 400,000 people took part in the walkout. That claim was disputed by the government, which put the figure at close to 150,000 and branded the strike “futile.”
The protest came after the government confirmed yesterday it will make state employees work longer and contribute more to their pension plans. It was joined by thousands of off-duty police officers, who marched through central London to warn that job cuts are putting public safety at risk.
“The government refuses to accept that their pension robbery is deeply unpopular,” Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, said in a statement. He urged the government to begin “meaningful negotiations.”
Today’s strike over pensions was the third in six months and union leaders have warned that protests will continue this year. The last walkout, on Nov. 30, drew 2 million strikers, according to unions, and 900,000 according to the government.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party and its Liberal Democrat coalition partners suffered losses in local elections last week in a backlash against austerity measures aimed at tackling the budget deficit.
Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude condemned today’s walkout, saying most staff on low and middle incomes will be no worse off under the government’s proposals and many will do better.
“The dedicated majority of public-sector workers are working normally today and rigorous contingency plans are ensuring that nearly all key public services remain open as usual,” he said in an e-mailed statement. “Nevertheless, it is very disappointing that a handful of unions insist on carrying on with futile strike action which will benefit no one.”
He said that 102,244 civil servants went on strike, down from 146,000 in November. The PCS union said that estimate was “wildly inaccurate” and that the figure was well over 200,000.
The government said there had been no delays at borders including London’s Heathrow and Gatwick airports. Tax office call centers stayed open, only a handful of Jobcenters closed and court cases affected by the strike were diverted to other courts, it said.