In Britain, Public Workers Strike Over Pension Cuts

Public sector workers walked off their jobs Wednesday in Britain to protest pension cuts. They tied up airports, shut down schools and slowed delivery of health services. No one knows for sure how many joined the walkout, though some reports say it was as many as two million people. The strike is an important sign of the growing discontent with Britain's austerity program.

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Britain's labor unions admit they don't actually know how many people are taking part in today's mass one day strike there. All they know is it's big. They think the last time the U.K. saw a protest of this size was back in 1979. They also think up to two million people walked off the job today.

As NPR's Philip Reeves reports, at least one thing is for certain. Today's protest signifies growing tension over Britain's sweeping austerity program.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: This is a scene that London hasn't often in recent years witnessed. A tide of indignation, people marching through the stately heart of the city. It's mid-afternoon on a chilly winter's day. Tens of thousands walk through the middle of Britain's capital. They're carrying banners. They're blowing whistles. They're waving flags.

There are people who you might call the backbone of the British workforce who've gathered here, people from the health service, teachers, university professors, people who work in libraries, all of them out in the street today here and in many other parts of Britain.

For months now, there's been a wave of strikes around Europe. Today was Britain's turn. This is a one-day strike by public sector workers. They're not bringing the nation to a standstill, but they are causing significant disruption. Most schools were shut today. Hospitals are open, but tens of thousands of non-emergency operations have been cancelled. In some areas, transport services are being hit.

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REEVES: In Parliament, Prime Minister David Cameron was disparaging about the strike.

DAVID CAMERON: Less than a third of the civil services actually striking. In our borders, the early signs are the contingency measures are minimizing the impact. We have full cover in terms of ambulance services and only 18 out of 900 job centers have closed. So, despite the disappointment of the party opposite that support irresponsible, damaging strikes, it looks like something of a damp squib.

WILL GILLEY: Well, they would say that, wouldn't they? I wouldn't call it a damp squib at all.

REEVES: Will Gilley is from Unite, Britain's largest union. Today's dispute is about pensions. Britain's government's asking public sector workers to pay more and work for longer for their pensions. It says, with a population that's living longer and an economy in trouble, it just can't afford such generous retirement packages anymore.

Gilley says public sector employees are not usually well paid and they're determined to fight to protect their rights.

GILLEY: I mean, I think this is a good demonstration of the determination of our members about how they feel about the situation they're in with regard to their pensions. And it's the first time in a long time, 25 - more than 25 years, where health workers have taken industrial action.

REEVES: One of those health workers is Beverley Wallace. She's never been on strike before today. Walking out wasn't a difficult decision, she says.

BEVERLEY WALLACE: You wouldn't sit down and let somebody rob you and just hand them over the money. You have to do something in defense of yourself. And, to me, that's why it's worth taking this day where we're all losing pay, but we think it's worth it for the fact that our pensions in 20 or 30 years time have to be livable. We have to be able to survive on it.

REEVES: Britain yesterday revealed that it's way behind with its deficit cutting program, thanks partly to the euro's own crisis. There will be at least six more years of austerity. That means Britain, like much of Europe, faces a new era of confrontation between government and the labor force.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, London.

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