x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Unions and government argue over size of public sector strike in Britain

Thousands of schools closed but little other disruption after unions representing 750,000 teachers and government workers call one-day strike over plans to increase their pension contributions.

Public sector workers take part in a march through central London yesterday in protest at governments plans to cut their pensions. Dan Kitwood / Getty Images
Public sector workers take part in a march through central London yesterday in protest at governments plans to cut their pensions. Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

LONDON // A strike by hundreds of thousands of teachers and other public sector workers caused inconvenience but little chaos in Britain yesterday.

Walkouts by passport checkers and customs staff resulted in longer-than-usual delays for non-EU passengers arriving at Heathrow and Manchester airports, but the severe disruption predicted by both the unions and the UK Border Agency was avoided.

But about two thirds of the 23,000 state schools in England and Wales were either completely or partly closed, while passport offices were shut in London and Liverpool. Police officers were drafted in to man phones after staff at emergency call centres walked out.

Courts, driving test centres, job centres and various other government offices were also closed or manned by skeleton staff.

Unions representing 750,000 teachers and government workers had called the one-day strike after the government announced plans to increase their pension contributions in a bid to reduce the record budget deficit.

The most dire effects were predicted to affect international arrivals at airports where immigration and customs staff began walking out late on Wednesday.

However, by mid-afternoon yesterday, contingency plans, which saw managers and other staff taking up front-line posts, appeared to have averted serious problems.

Delays for non-EU citizens at Heathrow were about 45 minutes, although there was a brief, additional delay at Terminal 3 after a fire alarm was triggered yesterday afternoon, leading to a 20-minute evacuation before it was discovered to be a false alarm.

A spokesman for the airport operators said: "There have been no significant immigration delays at Heathrow so far today and we're pleased that contingency plans put into place by the UK Border Agency are working well."

Other London airports, including Gatwick, reported few, if any, delays while, in Manchester, it was taking an hour for passengers on US flights to get through immigration. Few others encountered problems.

Aside from the inconvenience to working parents who had to take the day off because schools were closed, the biggest disruption was probably on the roads. Protest marches by strikers in central London and a half-dozen other major cities disrupted traffic.

Union leaders and ministers disagreed over the impact of the strikes. The Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) claimed its 240,000 government workers had given unprecedented support to the strike, while government spokesmen cast doubt on the numbers taking action.

The Cabinet Office in Downing Street suggested that fewer than half of PCS members had gone on strike, estimating that slightly fewer than 100,000 took part.

Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, said: "What today has shown is that the vast majority of hard-working public sector employees do not support today's premature strike and have come into work today.

"I want to thank them all for coming in, ignoring the pickets and putting the public first."

But Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS, claimed: "This is the best-supported strike we've ever had.

"The government made a lot of the fact that after the strike ballot, it was clear civil servants didn't support strike action, but today we can see that they have voted with their feet and sent a clear message to the government that they will not tolerate these attacks on their hard-earned pensions rights and will fight the cuts that threaten to devastate our communities and jobs."

Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, estimated that up to 80 per cent of the schools in England and Wales had been affected by strikes.

"We realise that's very disruptive for parents and we do regret that," he said. "We had hoped to reach a settlement before the industrial action, but the government isn't serious about talks."

dsapsted@thenational.ae