Two million state workers to strike in Britain
More than two million public sector workers are expected to go on strike on Wednesday in protest at changes to their pensions in the biggest industrial action in Britain for three decades.
Thousands of schools will be closed, refuse will remain uncollected and hospitals will have skeleton staffing.
Passengers arriving at London's Heathrow airport, one of the world's busiest air hubs, have been warned to expect delays of up to 12 hours to have their passports checked as many border control officials will walk out.
The strike will be the biggest test so far of Prime Minister David Cameron's coalition government, which sparked the unions' fury by proposing to bring the retirement age for public sector workers into line with the state pension.
The reforms mean most civil servants, council workers and teachers will have to work until the age of 66 and most will have to pay more into their pensions only to receive a lower payout.
Cameron has condemned the strike, arguing the government has made a reasonable offer on public sector pensions at a time when it is ushering in a raft of austerity measures aimed at slashing the deficit.
"We have put forward, I think, a very fair and very reasonable offer in terms of public sector pensions. And I think this strike is completely wrong," Cameron said on Monday.
"It won't change anyone's approach or anyone's view but it is going to put a lot of families at a huge inconvenience and I would appeal, even at this last minute, to trade union leaders to say that they shouldn't go ahead with this strike.
"It is not going to achieve anything and it will be damaging to our economy."
But the action has the support of all the main unions, and they appear to be in no mood to back down.
The leader of the Unison union, Dave Prentis, said there was "absolutely no chance" of reaching a deal in the next few days and predicted 2.6 million people could take part -- making it the biggest since the 1926 General Strike.
Adding to the pressure on the government, Prentis threatened further industrial action in the new year if the dispute is not resolved.
He said unions were neither asking for increased pay nor making "impossible" demands but were fighting the "totally unjustified" pension reforms -- and he argued that low-paid women were the hardest hit.
"The government is trying to paint a picture of macho union leaders squaring up for a fight, but it will be mainly women public sector workers out in force on Wednesday -- women who are angry and feel let down by the pension changes," he said.
Some airlines have cancelled flights in and out of Heathrow on Wednesday, including Middle East carrier Etihad, which has axed two flights from Abu Dhabi as well as one Heathrow-Abu Dhabi service.
BAA, the company which operates Heathrow, has asked airlines to only send half-full planes into the airport on Wednesday.
In a letter to airlines, it said passengers could face delays of up to 12 hours with arriving planes possibly held on the runway and departing ones possibly taking off late.
Virgin Atlantic said it had slashed 1,000 people from its passenger lists for Wednesday and it and British Airways are among carriers that have waived the normal charges for those wishing to change their flights.
Other British airports have said they do not expect to be badly hit.
© 2011 AFP