British Public Sector Workers Strike Over Pensions

What's being described as the largest national strike in a generation has begun in Britain. Some two million public sector workers are expected to take part. It's the latest in a wave of protests over austerity measures that have been sweeping through Europe for many months.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Occupy protests have focused on economic issues which are also motivating a massive strike in Britain. It's being described as the largest national strike in a generation. Some two million public sector workers were expected to take part responding to austerity measures.

NPR's Philip Reeves joins us from our studios in London. Hi, Philip.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hi.

INSKEEP: Okay. We mentioned two million people expected to take part. We're just beginning the workday where you are. Are people really not showing up for work?

REEVES: Well, we're not sure of the numbers yet, but we do know that this is involving a huge spectrum of workers. You know, teachers, lecturers, immigration staff, tax officials, ambulance crews, midwives, road sweepers, weather forecasters, librarians, and many more, Steve. And that's impacting, obviously, quite a range of services today. A lot of schools and colleges have closed. Some transport links have been disrupted. In Northern Ireland, for example, there are no bus and train services at all. Hospitals are affected. Thousands of non-emergency operations in hospitals have been cancelled. Ambulance crews are taking emergency calls only. So its effect on life is pretty wide-reaching, it seems.

INSKEEP: Teachers, meaning that students might show up for school and there would be no teachers there in some cases.

REEVES: Well, students are always ahead of the game in these matters. My daughter, for example, has been well aware that there's a strike and has been planning her day, and that day does not involve going to school...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Although she won't know how to dress because the weather forecasters are on strike as well, you said, so who knows?

REEVES: That's right. And we're also expecting quite a bit of traffic disruption because there are going to be marches and rallies in towns and cities across the land today.

INSKEEP: Now, is there a specific issue behind this strike? Of course, there's been widespread austerity with the British government, but is there something specific that people are focusing on?

REEVES: Yes, it's pensions. In a nutshell, Britain's government has told public servants that they must pay more for their pensions and work for longer. It's asking them to accept the pension based on a career average salary rather than the final salary. That's the deal that many of them are currently on. And now this is part of a huge tranche of austerity measures introduced by the British government as it grapples with this yawning deficit. A lot of these jobs are actually very modestly paid but they deliver relatively generous pensions. So those who've walked out today say that these pensions are a very important aspect of their remuneration, one reason why they took the job in the first place, and they're now been taken away from them and they view that as profoundly unfair.

INSKEEP: This is sounding familiar to debates in the United States over Medicare and Social Security and projections of costs and so forth, particularly with Medicare, although Social Security's been dragged into the debate. Is the issue of dealing with senior citizens, dealing with retirees, a huge, huge issue for the government in Britain in terms of their finances?

REEVES: Yes, it is, and people, of course, are getting - are living for longer, and that is being factored in. And the government's raising that issue, saying, look, we just can't afford to pay these pensions anymore. It's condemning the strikers for that reason, but it's also saying that this strike today just won't achieve anything except further damage to the British economy, which is already in big trouble. And they accuse the unions of staging this walkout while negotiations are actually still going on. The unions, though, they say that they had no option as the government's not taking these negotiations seriously.

INSKEEP: Isn't the British government actually - this week - haven't they just announced more cuts?

REEVES: Yeah, yesterday. They confirmed that they've fallen very badly behind with their deficit-reduction plans. They're going to have to borrow a lot more - some $180 billion more. They're going to introduce more cuts. The British are now looking at six years of austerity. Now, there are new factors involved here - high inflation - but notably the eurozone crisis next door. Remember, Britain's not part of the eurozone but it's right next to it and it trades big time with the eurozone, so it's being affect by what's happening there. Now, some of these cuts involve the very workers who are striking today. They have learned that 300,000 more of their jobs are going in the coming years. Their pay is already frozen. And when that freeze ends in a couple of years, they're now going to have a one percent cap slapped on it for a couple more years. So they are losing money as inflation factored in. It means it's a big pay cut, and the government's also bringing forward plans to increase the retirement age in Britain to 67. They're bringing that forward so that it'll be infused earlier. All this is stoking up the anger of those taking part in today's one-day strike.

INSKEEP: Philip, thanks very much.

REEVES: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Philip Reeves reporting to us from London. British workers - two million of them, as many as two million public sector workers - are promising to strike today. We also heard about Philadelphia and Los Angeles, where Occupy protests are coming to an end. Police have come in and occupied Occupy camps in Philadelphia and Los Angeles overnight. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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