Scores Of British Workers Protest Austerity Measures
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now, the Occupy protests have focused on economic issues, which are also motivating a massive strike in Britain today. It is being described as the largest national strike in a generation. It is estimated that as many as 2 million public sector workers may be taking part, the latest in a wave of protests over austerity measures.
NPR's Philip Reeves is covering that story in London. And Philip, where are you?
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Well, Steve, I'm standing outside the Savoy Hotel in the center of London, its Christmas lights twinkling in the afternoon gloom. And in front of me there is a river of noisy indignation flowing through the heart of London – men, women, young and old, who are walking along the Strand and are heading for the houses of Parliament to make their protest known about austerity cuts in general, and about changes to the pension scheme for public sector workers in particular. It's a very colorful scene. There are banners and balloons, men and women young and old, as I say, and people who very much come from that world of municipal offices – there are teachers, lecturers, immigration staff, tax officials, road sweepers, crematorium workers. And all have gathered here in this, one of many demonstrations that is taking place in cities and towns across Britain today.
INSKEEP: So to be clear about what's happening, these are people who didn't show up for work today, walked off the job, and a great many of them have showed up there and they're marching, as you said, toward the houses of Parliament in Central London. What, specifically, are they demanding?
REEVES: Well, this is a strike which is essentially about changes to the pensions of public sector workers. The government is asking them to work longer, and to make larger contributions to their pensions. These people are not generally very well-paid, but they regard the pensions which they get, which are relatively good, as a key part of their remuneration. Because of the need to try to close Britain's yawning budget deficit, the government has included this as one of many austerity measure that it's introducing, and the public sector workers deeply object to it. And that's why they are on the streets today in what looked to be significant numbers.
INSKEEP: Philip Reeves, I want to tell you about something that we have from our news wires here, happening elsewhere in Britain. Of course, those who walked off the job today have included people who are doing border control, passport control and that sort of thing, at the airports in Britain. We are told that airport managers are saying that flights have not been delayed as a result of this, that people are not standing in especially long lines to get their passports stamped, because of a draft, an emergency draft of extra people to come in and man the desks, including, quote, members of Prime Minister David Cameron's policy unit, and his press secretary. Is the government managing to keep things flowing normally, as far as you can tell, in Britain today?
REEVES: Yes. So far, despite predictions that there would be very long delays at Heathrow Airport - up to 12 hours, some people were saying - there are no reports of significant delays. And you're perfectly right, Steve. They've been drafting in people from the Home Office - that's Britain's equivalent of the Interior Ministry – and also from the police, and yes, it's reported from the prime minister's own office. Mr. Cameron, the prime minister here, is - of course - a man who was brought up in the public relations business, and he hasn't missed this opportunity to make a point which will perhaps grab a headline or two on this day of strikes and demonstrations across the nation.
INSKEEP: What about elsewhere in London as far as you've been able to tell, moving about the streets today? Schools are closed. What about transit, that sort of thing?
REEVES: Well, it's a patchy picture. There's a lot of schools closed all over the country, and there are some quite significant disruption to transport links in places. Colleges are also closed, and a lot of government offices are, too. But it is by no means a complete shutdown in this country. A lot of businesses are also functioning, of course, because they don't involve public sector workers. So it's a patchy picture, but it is clearly quite a significant protest that's happening in Britain, just as it has in European cities over the last few months.
INSKEEP: Philip, we've just got a couple seconds, but you told us earlier this morning that your daughter was eagerly anticipating the teachers being gone, and missing school today. Have you heard from her this afternoon, British time?
REEVES: No, she's far too sensible to waste time calling me when she's got a day off to have fun in.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
INSKEEP: Philip Reeves, thanks very much.
REEVES: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Philip Reeves in London - the heart of a strike by public workers today. They're demonstrating in the streets of London. We also heard from Los Angeles, where Occupy protesters were cleared from their camp early this morning.
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