- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 30, 2011

LONDON | The largest public-sector strike in a generation left Britain hamstrung Wednesday, as an estimated 2 million government workers walked off the job to protest proposed layoffs and changes in their retirement plans.

The strike shut most of the country’s schools, curbed non-emergency medical services and forced closures at many famous tourist sites - including the British Museum’s mummy collection.

However, by planning ahead, the government managed to avoid major disruptions at London airports, where immigration checks functioned relatively smoothly as contractors and foreign-based civil servants covered for striking border-control agents.

Demonstrators taking part in the 24-hour strike sought to highlight what they say is an unfair push to rein in public-sector retirement packages.

As part of a sweeping austerity program, the British government has proposed raising the retirement age to 67 in the coming decades and asking employees to contribute an average of 3.2 percent more to their pensions, to be phased in over the next three years.

Members of the 29 unions that voted to strike hailed the event as a success, and labor officials threatened future strikes if the government fails to make additional concessions.

The Conservative-led coalition government described the mass strike as irresponsible because negotiations over the proposed cutbacks are still ongoing.

During an appearance before members of Parliament on Wednesday, Prime Minister David Cameron called the strikes a “damp squib.” He noted that only 60 percent of the nation’s schools closed, instead of the expected 90 percent, and fewer than one in three civil servants decided to walk off their jobs.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne on Tuesday reaffirmed the government’s plan for tough fiscal measures, as it scrambles to avoid a similar version of the debt-induced crises taking place in Greece, Italy and elsewhere in Europe.

Mr. Osborne, the British equivalent of a Treasury secretary, fueled further anger among public-sector workers by revising the number of expected layoffs to more than 700,000 by 2017, nearly double the previous figure of 400,000, and by confirming that pay raises for public workers will be capped at 1 percent after a current pay freeze expires in 2013.

Tony Mabbott, a union organizer who helps manage postgraduate medical and dental training in London, said public employees “are the people holding society together.”

Mr. Mabbott said the pension reforms will only harm the economy in the long run by leading workers to drop out of the retirement program and eventually become dependent on government welfare.

The breadth of the strike - the biggest coordinated action since the so-called “Winter of Discontent” in 1979 - extended well beyond the health and education sectors.

A dozen or so employees picketed Wednesday morning outside the entrance to the British Museum, home of the world-famous Rosetta Stone and countless other artifacts.

While most of the building remained open, the museum’s entire top floor, which contains its revered mummy exhibit, was closed amid the disruption.

The closure upset Dallas, Texas, resident Greg Kidd, who was trying to take in the sights on his first trip to London.

Citing parallels between the debate over austerity measures in Britain and the fight over budget cuts in Washington, Mr. Kidd said picketers have “unrealistic” expectations.

“The sooner they figure out the difference between what they’re promised and [the money] coming in, the better for their country,” he said.

Some tourists said they were not even aware of the strike, which has dominated the news cycle here for the past week.

“I would not have known anything was going on, if it weren’t for the [police] helicopters,” said Debbie Kinsella, a retired teacher visiting London from St. Louis.

Ms. Kinsella, who had just finished a ride along the River Thames on a privately operated cruise boat, said she planned to avoid museum sights for the rest of the day.

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