U.K. public sector employees stage what is being called the biggest strike in decades to protest cash-strapped government's plans to recast their pensions

Cindy Allen

Cindy Allen

Nov 30, 2011 – Associated Press

LONDON , November 30, 2011 () – Public sector workers in Britain staged what is being billed as the biggest strike in decades on Wednesday to protest the cash-strapped government's plans to recast their pensions in an effort to reduce the cost to taxpayers.

The one-day strike has been called in protest at the government's plan to make public sector pensions less generous in the years ahead. The pension reforms are part of a package of austerity measures designed to get a grip on the country's high borrowing levels.

The Department for Education estimated that at least half of the nation's schools had been closed because of the one-day strike. The action was also expected to lead to longer waits for visitors needing immigration checks, though London's Heathrow and Gatwick airports reported no unusual delays by 0800 GMT.

The government estimated that 60,000 non-urgent operations, outpatient appointments, tests and follow-up appointments had been postponed in England, while in Scotland at least 3,000 operations and thousands more hospital appointments are affected.

The strike was billed as the biggest labor action in Britain for decades, certainly since the so-called Winter of Discontent in 1979, which presaged the arrival of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister.

"I feel angry that I'm paying a 50 percent increase in pension contributions and I feel angry that I'm going to have to work longer and at the end of it get less," said Russ Aitken of Mersey Tunnel Police in Liverpool.

"Hopefully the government will change its position. The situation was made by the government and the bankers and the people who are asked to pay the price is public sector workers."

Treasury chief George Osborne said the government would not budge.

"The strike is not going to achieve anything," Osborne said. "It is only going to make our economy weaker and potentially cost jobs."

On Tuesday, Osborne painted a gloomy picture of the nation's economy. The official forecast in March that the economy would grow by 2.5 percent next year has been marked down to a feeble 0.7 percent.

Osborne conceded that the British economy may slip back into recession next year if the crisis in the 17-nation eurozone deteriorates even further, and that the government will have to borrow more over this Parliament than previously expected.

In order to get back on track, he announced further spending cuts and curbs on pay in the public sector. Currently, public sector pay is frozen and Osborne said pay hikes would be limited to 1 percent when the freeze end, way lower than the current inflation rate of around 1 percent.

In a further effort to cut long-term debt, Osborne also said the age for collecting state pensions would be raised to 67 in 2026, earlier than previously planned.

Union leaders said that would make it even more difficult to resolve the pension issue.

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