U.K. public sector workers strike in protest of pension reform

Workers say reforms will force them to work longer, pay more for pensions

(Reuters) — Hundreds of thousands of teachers, nurses and border guards protesting over pension reform staged Britain's first mass strike for more than 30 years in a confrontation with the government over its austerity measures on Nov. 30, 2011.

Prime Minister David Cameron played down the impact of the strike, calling it "something of a damp squib," saying 40 per cent of schools were open and the main London airports were working smoothly.

Unions hit back, saying up to two-million public sector workers walked out over reforms that unions say will force them to work longer before they can retire and pay more for pensions that will be worth less.

Union anger has been fuelled by new curbs on public sector pay and hundreds of thousands of additional job cuts outlined Nov. 29 when the Conservative-led coalition government cut economic growth forecasts and said its tough austerity program would last until 2017.

The power of Britain's trade unions was curbed by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government in the 1980s, but the public sector remains one of their strongholds.

Unions are threatening further strikes next year if the dispute is not resolved but analysts say a repeat of the 1979 Winter of Discontent that helped Thatcher sweep to power is not on the cards.

"It's very different to the 1970s and 80s. Many of the services that were run by the public sector have been privatized," said Tony Travers, a public finance expert at London School of Economics.

"There is not much evidence that rank and file union members want to go on long-term strikes," he added. "The unions have the power to make a fuss and wound but not kill."

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