Services hit as workers in Britain strike over pension changes

June 30, 2011

Airports, courts and more than 10,000 schools were among the services hit by a massive public-sector strike across Britain on Thursday as thousands of workers staged what they said was the biggest walkout in a generation.

Union organizers said more than 750,000 public employees — teachers, lecturers, court staff, emergency call staff, passport officers and other civil servants — walked out during the one-day strike over proposed changes to their pension system.

The walkout was the first major uprising over the Conservative-led government’s ambitious plans to slash $128 billion in spending over the next four years.

The rationale behind pension reforms, the government says, is the same for Britain’s austerity program as a whole: Current levels of spending are unsustainable.

But like public-sector employees across Europe, those striking in Britain argue that it’s grossly unfair that millions of workers are being forced to carry the burden of reducing a deficit that ballooned after the financial crisis.

“I feel the bankers have caused all the problems, all their gambling with all our money, they have caused a deficit,” said Diana Lowe, 46, an art teacher who marched with thousands at a rally in central London. “So why should I, as an ordinary teacher, who gets paid a pittance, pay for the bankers?”

Three teachers unions and Britain’s largest civil service union, Public and Commercial Services, took part in Thursday’s strike, but many more have warned that this could be the start of a larger wave of industrial action.

Under proposals penned by John Hutton, a former Labor Party pensions minister, the public-sector retirement age would increase to match the state-pension age, which is rising to 66 by 2020. He also recommended that pensions be based on less generous “career average salaries” rather than “final salaries,” hurting highfliers who were earning a lot at the end of their careers. There are also plans to increase pension contributions by three percentage points.

Members of the British public, who also are feeling the pinch of austerity measures, aren’t effusive in their support of the strikers.

According to a recent ComRes/ITV News poll, 63 percent said the public-sector strikers won’t elicit much sympathy because “everyone has to shoulder the burden of cuts.”

Prime Minister David Cameron has called the pension reforms necessary and fair, and he said the unions are “wrong” to strike while negotiations are continuing.

There are more than 7 million trade union members in Britain, down from a peak of 13 million in 1979, during which time widespread strikes led to the “Winter of Discontent” and famously saw gravediggers walking off the job.

Worried that the threats of industrial unrest might escalate into what the British media have dubbed a “Summer of Discontent,” some Conservatives, including the mayor of London, have called for new legislation to make it harder for unions to go on strike.

The government says the current pension system is unaffordable and untenable, but for many of those picketing Thursday, the real-life impact of the proposed changes, such as the retirement age for women rising from 60 to 66, seemed a hefty price to pay.

Anne Drew, 56, a primary-school teacher, said the “thought that you’d have to work until you were nearly in a Zimmer frame” — a British term for a walker — while suddenly paying more for a smaller pension pot was “just disgusting.”

Adam is a special correspondent. Researcher Eliza Mackintosh contributed to this report.

Karla Adam is a reporter in the Washington Post’s London bureau. Before joining the Post in 2006, she worked as a freelancer in London for the New York Times and People magazine.
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