World

British public-sector strike hits schools, hospitals

Border workers join teachers and hospital staff in Britain for a one-day public-sector strike over government pension reform, but airline travel has so far been unaffected.

Airlines avoid chaos as 2 million walk off the job over pension reform

Border workers joined teachers and hospital staff in Britain on Wednesday for a public-sector strike over government spending cuts they say will make them pay more and work longer for their pensions, but airline travel has so far been unaffected in the one-day walkout.

Called the worst disruption to services in decades, the strike closed most state-run schools and brought hospitals to a virtual standstill. As well, garbage collection and most rail service were cancelled, tunnels were closed, and thousands of non-emergency hospital operations were cancelled, the Guardian reported.

What's affected

  • At least half of England's 21,700 state schools were closed, and about three-quarters of schools in the U.K. could eventually be forced to shut early.
  • Health officials said 60,000 non-urgent operations, outpatient appointments, tests and followup appointments had been postponed in England, while in Scotland, at least 3,000 operations and thousands more hospital appointments were cancelled.
  • Urgent care was not expected to be affected during the day.
  • Botanists, nuclear physicists and catering staff at the Houses of Parliament joined the strike.
  • Off Britain's northernmost tip, ferry services were suspended to the Shetland Isles.
  • Border control points were being served by temporary staff, while marines were on standby to work at Heathrow, the BBC reported.
  • Railway and subway service in Newcastle was closed, while Glasgow subway service was down. Bus and rail services in Northern Ireland were also affected. Two Mersey tunnels were also closed. 

At airports, however, passengers experienced little of the forecast trouble.

Heathrow Airport and scores of airlines had warned that international travellers could be held in lines for up to 12 hours at immigration halls as a result of staff shortages. But airport managers said flights arriving early Wednesday from the United States, Asia and Europe were largely unaffected, in part because of contingency plans that saw bureaucrats drafted in to staff border desks

While the nub of the issue is the cost of public-service pensions, the walkout does not have the support of the opposition Labour Party.

"We do not support the strike, because a strike is a sign of failure," treasury critic Rachel Reeve told the BBC.

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said he believed the government had made a "very reasonable, very fair offer to public-sector workers".

"I don't want to see any strikes, I don't want to see schools closed, I don't want to see problems at our borders, but this government has to make responsible decisions," Cameron said in the House of Commons.

"We believe public sector pensions should be generous but as people live longer it's only right and only fair that you should make greater contributions," he said.

Labour union leaders have warned that the strike may just be the start of a wave of disruption, with public workers opposing government plans to reform pensions, demands that they work longer before receiving a pension and contribute more money each month.

Waits as long as three hours had been expected for travellers arriving at Heathrow. As well, Gatwick airport south of London expected "significant disruption."

Some border control points were being served by temporary hired staff, while marines were on standby to work at Heathrow, the BBC reported.

People arrive at departures at Heathrow Airport's Terminal 3 in west London on Wednesday, where a British public-service strike appeared to be having little effect. (Paul Hackett/Reuters)

Cameron's public-sector pension changes are part of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government's package of austerity measures to tackle a budget deficit that peaked at 11 per cent of GDP when the government was elected. 

The government says public-sector workers must pay more into state-controlled pension plans to make annual savings of £2.8 billion ($4.5 billion) by 2014. It cites longer life expectancy and the fact that government pensions are more generous than those offered in the private  sector, putting an unfair burden on taxpayers.

Under the plan, workers in the public sector will contribute an average of 3.2 per cent more annually to their pension funds, Reuters reported. 

With files from The Asociated Press