British schools, airports face strike disruption

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About 600,000 teachers and civil servants were set to join a rare strike in Britain on Thursday, disrupting schools, airports and ports in the biggest walkout since the government took office last year.

Four trade unions voted to take action on June 30 to protest against changes to pensions, in what one labour union warned could be the start of the most serious widespread industrial unrest in Britain since 1926.

Prime Minister David Cameron made a final effort on Tuesday to persuade them to abandon the strike, which could close or disrupt up to 85 percent of schools and colleges in England and Wales as teachers walk out in their droves.

Coordinated strikes by civil servants will also see disruption to job centres, tax offices and courts, and the UK Border Agency said a walkout by its customs and immigration staff would cause delays at airports, train stations and ports.

Cameron insisted the proposed changes to make public sector employees work longer and contribute more to their pensions were necessary but fair as Britain faced up to the challenges of an ageing population.

The Conservative leader, whose party formed a coalition with the centrist Liberal Democrats after elections in May 2010, also argued the strike was premature because talks between unions and ministers were still continuing.

"To those considering strike action, at a time when discussions are ongoing, I would say to you: these strikes are wrong -- for you, for the people you serve, for the good of the country," he said.

"It's the changes we propose that are right."

But there is widespread anger among public sector workers who have already been hit with a two-year pay freeze and face more than 330,000 job losses by 2015 as the government slashes spending to eliminate a record budget deficit.

Their frustration is underscored by the fact that Thursday's national walkout will be the first ever by Britain's ATL education union in its 127-year history. A spokeswoman told AFP its members were "furious".

Some 78,000 of the school and college staff in the ATL are affected by the pensions changes, which it argues are unaffordable and could deter people from entering the profession.

The reforms would raise the public sector retirement age by up to six years to 66, increase employee contributions by 50 percent in some cases, and replace final salary pensions with one based on average career earnings.

Cameron insisted there was no option, warning that "the pension system is in danger of going broke".

About 220,000 members of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and 55,000 from the University and College Union (UCU) have also been called out on strike, as have 250,000 civil servants in the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union.

They are not being joined by Unison, the largest public sector union in Britain with 1.3 million members, which has opted to continue talking.

"But if the government does not move, we will move towards strike action this autumn," a spokeswoman said.

Unison general secretary Dave Prentis earlier this month warned of waves of industrial action. "It will be the biggest since the general strike (of 1926)," he told The Guardian newspaper.

Opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband has warned however that strikes "must always be the very last resort" and said the unions had yet to win the argument.

The government has also indicated it might tighten rules on when unions can call strikes, sparking comparisons with Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher's reforms which hobbled the unions in the 1980s.

Since Thatcher's time union membership has declined rapidly, and just over the quarter of the workforce is currently unionised.

Britain loses far fewer working days to strikes than the EU average, and the last major strike over pensions was in March 2006, by one million local government employees.

A ComRes survey this week found 50 percent of the public backed more restrictive strike laws but 49 percent said unions had a legitimate reason to strike over pensions.

© 2011 AFP

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