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750,000 in London to strike over cost-cutting austerity plan

Public-sector workers protest spending cuts

- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 29, 2011

LONDON — Thousands of British schools will close and travelers will face long lines at airport immigration Thursday when three quarters of a million workers go on strike - the first blast in what unions hope will be a summer of discontent against the cost-cutting government's austerity plans.

The government hopes it will fizzle into a summer of hardheaded acceptance.

The first test comes when 750,000 public-sector workers - from teachers to driving examiners to customs officials - walk out for the day, part of a growing wave of opposition to the Conservative-led government's deficit-cutting regime of tax hikes, benefit curbs and spending cuts.

The British government believes about a third of schools will close, with another third likely to face disruptions.

The U.K. Border Agency has warned travelers could face delays at British ports and airports when passport officers walk out, and said "passengers who can do so may wish to travel on other dates." The government says there is no risk to Britain's security.

"On the borders, we have been considering contingency plans for some time and we have plans in place to deal with the issues we are anticipating as a result of strike action by U.K. Border Agency staff," Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman, Steve Field, said Wednesday.

The unions say the strike is just the start of a campaign of labor action on a scale unseen in Britain for three decades.

"On Thursday, we will see hundreds of thousands of civil and public servants on strike," said Mark Serwotka, leader of the Public and Commercial Services Union. "We fully expect to be joined by millions more in the autumn."

The government insists everyone must share the pain as it cuts $130 billion from public spending to reduce the huge deficit, swollen after Britain spent billions bailing out foundering banks.

It is cutting civil service jobs and benefits, raising the state pension age from 65 to 66, hiking the amount public sector employees contribute to pensions and reducing the payouts they get on retirement.

The government says the measures are tough but fair, and is gambling that the public will blame unions for any inconvenience caused by the strikes.

"The public have a very low tolerance for anything that disrupts their hardworking lifestyles," said Education Secretary Michael Gove.

He said the strike would hurt "the respect in which teachers should be held."

That's not entirely the case at school gates, where some parents are sympathetic to the teachers.

"I think this 'all in it together' is a nonsense line," said Bertie Miller, an advertising executive dropping off his daughter at a London primary school. "We're patently not all in it together. Start with the bankers. Start at the top, and then take it out of teachers' pensions if we need to."

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