Heathrow chaos over pension strike avoided
Nov. 30, 2011, London, U.K. - Airline passengers arriving in Britain escaped chaos early Wednesday despite dire predictions of long waits, as border staff joined teachers, hospital workers and weather forecasters in the country's largest strike in decades.
The one-day strike has been called in protest at the government's plan to make public sector pensions less generous in the years ahead. The pension reforms are part of a package of austerity measures designed to get a grip on the country's high borrowing levels.
London's Heathrow Airport and scores of airlines had warned that international travellers could be held in lines for up to 12 hours at immigration halls as a result of staff shortages. But airport
managers said flights arriving early Wednesday from the United States, Asia and Europe were largely unaffected, in part because of contingency plans which saw bureaucrats drafted in to staff border
"Immigration queues are currently at normal levels," Heathrow's operator BAA said in a statement. "However, there still remains a possibility of delays for arriving passengers later in the day."
Labour unions said as many as two million public sector staff were expected to join the strike, called to oppose government demands that they work longer before receiving a public pension and
contribute more money each month.
A government report found taxpayers contribute about 32 billion pounds ($50 billion) each year to public sector pensions, and warned the gap between contributions and payments could rise to 9 billion
pounds ($14 billion) by 2015.
Strikers were also protesting sharp public spending cuts, which on Tuesday saw the government extend pay curbs further. When the current freeze runs out, the government has set a 1 per cent limit
on public sector pay rises through 2014.
Announcing an extension of austerity measures, Treasury chief George Osborne said the age for collecting state pensions would be raised to 67 in 2026, earlier than previously planned.
The decision followed an official forecast which marked down Britain's predicted growth to a feeble 0.7 per cent next year, from the previous 2.5 per cent prediction made in March.
Eleanor Smith, president of UNISON — the country's largest trade union which represents about 1 million health, education and law enforcement staff – said many of those joining the walkouts were
striking for the first time.
"The government wants us to work longer, pay more and at the end get less. How fair is that?" said Smith, who joined a picket outside Birmingham Women's Hospital in central England, where she
works as a theatre nurse.
John Kelly, a professor of industrial relations at the Birkbeck University of London, said the strike was likely to be Britain's largest one-day walkout since the early 1970s. If the numbers exceed 2 million, it could match the 1926 General Strike, he said
"For most people, the size of this strike will be unprecedented in their lifetime," said Kelly.
However, at ports and airports the initial impact on services appeared limited.
Debbie Arnell, a 42-year-old apprenticeship assessor from Bournemouth, southern England, arrived at Heathrow early on Wednesday after a holiday in Philadelphia, and said conditions were good.
"I have used this terminal seven times before and today was better than usual," she said. "They were even giving out free fruit and water, which they don't usually do. It's almost like they have overcompensated."
Britain's government said at least half of England's 21,700 state schools were closed, and that around three-quarters of schools in the U.K. could eventually be forced to shut early.
Health officials said 60,000 non-urgent operations, outpatient appointments, tests and follow-up appointments had been postponed in England, while in Scotland at least 3,000 operations and thousands more hospital appointments were cancelled.
Botanists, nuclear physicists and catering staff at the Houses of Parliament – who formed picket lines outside the famous building — joined the strike, while off Britain's northernmost tip, ferry services were suspended to the Shetland Isles as a result of the action.
"The strike is not going to achieve anything, it's not going to change anything," Osborne said. "It is only going to make our economy weaker and potentially cost jobs."
Earlier this week, Education Secretary Michael Gove accused militant labour leaders of ignoring Britain's economic reality and spoiling for a fight with the government – evoking ex-Conservative Party leader Margaret Thatcher's battle with unions during the 1984-1985 miners' strike.