LONDON — Hundreds of thousands of British teachers and civil servants will strike over pension reform today in the most serious challenge to the coalition government’s austerity drive.
Thousands of schools will close as teachers skip class and travellers face delays at ports and airports as immigration officials join the protest.
Protests are becoming increasingly common across Europe in what is turning into a summer of strife.
The most vivid images have come from Greece where hooded youths rioted ahead of a parliamentary vote on budget cuts and tax rises to stave off bankruptcy.
In Poland, the Solidarity trade union has organised a day of protests in Warsaw against the centre-right government today, one day before Poland assumes the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union for the first time.
Solidarity, heir to the organisation that toppled the communist regime in 1989, has invited workers from other European countries including crisis-stricken Greece to join the protests.
Across Europe, households are facing up to lower living standards as governments strive to repair public finances battered by the credit crisis of 2008/2009.
Public sector workers in Britain are already facing a pay freeze and more than 300,000 job cuts as the Conservative-led coalition seeks to virtually wipe out by 2015 a budget deficit that peaked at more than 10 per cent of national output.
Pension reform is the final straw for some unions, angered that their members are being asked to work longer and pay more for their retirement.
The government and the opposition Labour party have both condemned the strikes as premature, given that negotiations between unions and ministers are continuing.
“I don’t believe there is any case for industrial action tomorrow, not least because talks are still ongoing,” Prime Minister David Cameron told parliament yesterday, calling the strikes irresponsible.
The stoppages today are likely to be just a taste of things to come later this year if those talks fail to close the yawning gap between the two sides.
Public sympathy for the strikers appears to be limited. A Reuters/Ipsos MORI poll last week showed opinion divided over whether public sector workers were right to strike.
“I understand why they have called a strike but my attitude is they have to wake up and smell the coffee,” said Phil Stanley, 47, an engineer from Bishop’s Stortford, north of London.
“I haven’t had a pay rise for three years so they have a slight lack of reality,” he added as he waited for a train at London’s Liverpool Street station.
The strikes are a key test for a coalition that took power in May 2010 with the priority of cleaning up public finances.
The government has announced spending cuts totalling £81 billion by 2015 and any sign of retreat over pensions would unnerve financial markets.
Britain’s first coalition for 65 years has endured a wobbly few weeks, retreating on reforms to overhaul the state-funded National Health Service after pressure from the medical lobby and the Liberal Democrat junior coalition party.
The government also dropped plans to allow criminals to serve shorter sentences if they pleaded guilty early after a media outcry.
“This could be the beginning of quite a long series of strikes,” said Alastair Newton, senior political analyst at Nomura.
“I think the government is under pressure to stand firm on this one, frankly. I think you will see that heavily reflected in the press.
“If union members are determined, this could go on for quite a bit and be very disruptive and the public will get more and more and more hacked off.” — Reuters