Members of 30 U.K. public-sector unions walked out in a dispute over pensions with Prime Minister David Cameron’s government that’s set to close schools and disrupt airports and hospitals.
As many as 2 million government staff, including immigration officials, nurses and civil servants, are expected to take part in today’s one-day strike, the Trades Union Congress said in a statement. London ’s Heathrow airport, Europe ’s busiest hub, and Gatwick, the capital’s second airport, warned passengers they will face delays and Education Secretary Michael Gove said more than 90 percent of schools will be shut.
Unions are striking to protest plans to make government employees retire later and contribute more to their pensions. Ministers say the move, part of Cameron’s program of spending cuts to narrow thebudget deficit , is fair because workers who contribute to public-sector pensions get benefits no longer available in the private sector.
“They’re asking millions of public servants to pay higher contributions that won’t go into their pensions, but will go to paying off the deficit,” TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber will say in a speech today in Birmingham, central England , according to extracts released by his office. “They’ve scrapped the bankers’ bonus tax and replaced it with a teachers’, nurses’ and lollipop ladies’ tax.”
Immigration was operating normally at Heathrow early this morning, though the situation might change after an influx of flights at 7 a.m., a spokeswoman said by telephone. There were no early delays at Gatwick, spokeswoman Sarah Baranowski said by phone.
Even so, arriving international passengers at Gatwick should expect “significant delays”, the airport said in an e- mailed statement. There are 243 scheduled inbound flights today carrying around 29,000 passengers, 8,000 from outside the European Union where delays are most likely, the airport said.
Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander announced an improved offer to the unions on Nov. 2, after they had started holding ballots for strike action . The concessions included protecting existing pension rights for people 10 years from retirement, higher limits for government contributions and improved benefit-accrual rates.
“The deal we offer on public-sector pensions is fair to both taxpayers and public servants,” Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne told lawmakers in the House of Commons in London yesterday as he announced that growth next year will be slower than previously forecast and the government will need to increase borrowing.
‘Jobs at Risk’
“I ask the unions why they are damaging our economy at a time like this and putting jobs at risk,” Osborne said. “Call off the strikes, come back to the table, complete the negotiations and let’s agree generous pensions that are affordable to the taxpayer.”
Heathrow, which last week warned passengers they could face delays of as long as 12 hours waiting to pass through immigration, now expects waits of two to three hours, operator BAA Airports Ltd. said in an e-mailed statement. Police officers have been drafted in to assist with passport checks, Home Office minister Oliver Eden said in the House of Lords on Nov. 28.
“Some police will be involved, but they will have the appropriate training to do the job,” Eden, who is also known as Lord Henley, told lawmakers. “We started training additional staff for contingency arrangements in April and adequate resources are now available.”
British Airways, the largest operator at Heathrow, which offered passengers the option to rebook their flights, said it is planning to operate its full schedule.
Other airlines have scrapped flights because of the walkout. Etihad Airways said it canceled three planes to Heathrow from Abu Dhabi , while Singapore Airlines Ltd. (SIA) dropped two flights to London, saying there was a “significant risk” passengers would be unable to disembark from planes.
Eurostar Group Ltd., which runs trains through the Channel Tunnel, said passengers will experience delays at check-in in Paris and Brussels “in particular in the afternoon.” Travelers are advised to arrive one hour before departure rather than the usual 30 minutes, it said on its website .
Labor unions were angered by Osborne’s announcements yesterday of a 1 percent cap on public-sector pay increases once the current two-year freeze is over, an increase in the pension age to 67 and an easing of health-and-safety legislation. The chancellor also said he will make it easier for private companies to take over public-sector services.
The Office of Budget Responsibility increased its estimate yesterday of the number of public-sector workers who will lose their jobs by 2017 to 710,000, or 13 percent of employees in local and central government. The office previously predicted that 400,000 posts would be cut by 2016.
“This will have a devastating impact on the economy and communities across the U.K.,” Mark Serwotka , general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union, said of the job cuts in an e-mailed statement. “It’s the people who are paid the least who are having to pay the price.”