UK faces mass strikes as civil servants feel sting
Thousands of British schools will close and travelers will face long lines at airport immigration this week when three quarters of a million workers go on strike — the first blast in what unions hope will be a summer of discontent against the cost-cutting government's austerity plans.
The government hopes it will fizzle into a summer of hardheaded acceptance.
The first test comes Thursday, when 750,000 public-sector workers — from teachers to driving examiners to customs officials — walk out for the day, part of a growing wave of opposition to the Conservative-led government's deficit-cutting regime of tax hikes, benefit curbs and spending cuts.
The U.K. Border Agency has warned travelers could face delays at British ports and airports when passport officers walk out, and said "passengers who can do so may wish to travel on other dates." The government says there is no risk to Britain's security.
"On the borders, we have been considering contingency plans for some time and we have plans in place to deal with the issues we are anticipating as a result of strike action by U.K. Border Agency staff," Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman, Steve Field, said Wednesday.
The unions say the strike is just the start of a campaign of labor action on a scale unseen in Britain for three decades.
"On Thursday we will see hundreds of thousands of civil and public servants on strike," said Mark Serwotka, leader of the Public and Commercial Services Union. "We fully expect to be joined by millions more in the autumn."
The government insists everyone must share the pain as it cuts 80 billion pounds ($130 billion) from public spending to reduce the huge deficit, swollen after Britain spent billions bailing out foundering banks. It is cutting civil service jobs and benefits, raising the state pension age from 65 to 66, hiking the amount public sector employees contribute to pensions and reducing the payouts they get on retirement.
The government says the measures are tough but fair, and is gambling that the public will blame unions for any inconvenience caused by the strikes.
"The public have a very low tolerance for anything that disrupts their hardworking lifestyles," said Education Secretary Michael Gove. He said the strike would hurt "the respect in which teachers should be held."
That's not entirely the case at school gates, where some parents are sympathetic to the teachers.
"I think this 'all in it together' is a nonsense line," said Bertie Miller, an advertising executive dropping off his daughter at a London primary school. "We're patently not all in it together. Start with the bankers. Start at the top, and then take it out of teachers' pensions if we need to."
While some British trade unions — such as those representing London subway drivers — have a reputation for frequent strikes, their public sector counterparts are traditionally moderate. There has not been a national strike by teachers since the 1980s, and one of the unions, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, has never been on strike in its 127-year history.
Their leaders say they have no choice. They say their members work many years for modest pay, on the promise of a solid pension, and accuse the government of reneging on that deal.
In many ways, conditions are not favorable for the unions. Britain is not Greece, shocked into outrage by financial crisis. The economy remains weak as it emerges from recession, but the general mood is one of apprehension rather than anger.
Even the opposition Labour Party, the union movement's ostensible ally, is advising against strikes. Labour leader Ed Miliband wrote on his blog that the walkouts were "a mistake" and "a sign of failure on both sides."
Craig Phelan, a professor of modern history at Kingston University, says attitudes have changed dramatically since the 1980s, when unions took on Thatcher's government in grinding conflicts like a yearlong miners' strike — and lost. Then, more than 13 million Britons were union members. Now the figure is about 7 million.
Now, he said, when people think of unions they think of London subway drivers, "holding a city hostage for what seem like insignificant demands."
"People see unions as something other, someone who wants to take their money, someone who wants to inconvenience them, someone who doesn't want to work as hard as they do," Phelan said.
It's a hard attitude for unions to overturn, and they are moving with caution. Thursday's strike — a single day, near the end of the school year — will cause only limited disruption.
Unions and the government are still trying to resolve their differences. They met for talks on Monday, and plan more next month.
But union leaders sense a mood of anger among their members. Dave Prentis, general secretary of the million-strong Unison union, has predicted more strikes in the autumn, as workers react to a "perfect storm" of pay freezes and lower pensions.
And the unions are making new allies in the anti-capitalist and anti-cuts movements that have sprung up over the last year.
U.K. Uncut, a group that has staged sit-ins at banks and companies it accuses of tax-dodging, has held talks with union leaders about joining protests on Thursday. Students — who have held their own demonstrations over fee hikes — are expected to join picket lines, as well as holding their own sit-ins and occupations.
It's a potentially risky strategy for the unions. A huge union demonstration drew more than 250,000 people in London on March 26, the largest protest for almost a decade — but media coverage focused on a handful of self-described anarchists who smashed shop windows, spray-painted graffiti and pelted police with bottles.
But it's also a chance to show they remain relevant in an era of flashmobs and Twitter-fueled protest.
"Unions are still embedded in the fabric of British institutional life," Phelan said. "They have never disappeared. Are they poised for a revival? It's difficult to say, but you can see signs."
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