British workers stage large strike

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London Strike

London Strike

Workers ranging from garbage collectors to teachers to diplomats shuffled in picket lines and held banners. Border agents also walked off the job but airports still functioned.

Thousands of people marched through London streets in a noisy but peaceful march, blowing whistles and carrying placards. About two-thirds of England’s 21,700 state-run schools were closed.

“I think the government’s going to back off when they see what happened today,” said Elliot Shubert, a Natural History Museum biologist who held a banner painted with dinosaurs holding a sign saying, “No job cuts!” Politicians “didn’t want the strike to happen. … It’s egg on their faces.”

Labor unions said the strike was the biggest in more than 30 years with 2 million in the streets. Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude said the number was far lower.

Marchers were protesting measures to cut public-service pensions proposed by the government of Prime Minister David Cameron to deal with Britain’s massive $1.5 trillion debt.

Cameron’s government says it needs to cap pay increases at 1% for two years after a current pay freeze ends in 2013. The Treasury’s independent research arm says 710,000 public sector jobs will be eliminated by budget cuts.

Cameron defended the pension proposals, insisting that “as people live longer it’s only right … that you should make greater contributions.”

“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 must make responsible decisions,” Cameron told the House of Commons.

He called the protests a “damp squib” and said the strike was “irresponsible and damaging” given the financial and budget woes Britain faces.

Marchers appeared most angered over changes to their pensions that would have them work longer until retirement. One in five Britons are eligible for a government-service pension, according to the Treasury, and to keep the system viable the government wants to raise the retirement age for public servants to 65 — many can now retire at 60 — and increase their contributions to the pension program. The government also hopes to re-calculate pensions so some low-income workers would get more but others less.

“We do have an aging population to deal with, which will mean we will have to make choices about … which areas of spending we want to cut,” said Carl Emmerson, deputy director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, an independent research group.

But protesters at Wednesday’s march said it was unfair for the government to turn to public servants yet again to help balance the budget.

“I have to work two years longer whilst paying ($280) more a month and getting less in the end,” said striker Fabien Gaudin, a planning official for London’s Barnet district.

Even strikers who support the need for cuts said the government, which is still in negotiation with trade unions, should look elsewhere.

“We all have to bite the bullet,” Shubert said. “The pension cuts are just another way they’re trying to scrounge money out of us.”

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