British workers strike
London (CNN) — Mass strikes began across the United Kingdom on Wednesday, with up to 2 million workers walking off jobs in schools, hospitals and police stations in protest over proposed pension reforms.
Chaos was predicted at Heathrow airport in London, one of the world’s busiest international airports, but Wednesday morning operations were more or less normal.
Lines at immigration were moving smoothly, but BAA, the company that operates Heathrow, said they could get worse and incoming passengers could expect waits of two to three hours because of strikes by border control staff.
British Airways said it had not canceled any of its own flights, although a few code-sharing flights were called off.
BAA could not say how many flights were being canceled.
Unite, the country’s biggest trade union, said strikes and marches were taking place up and down the country.
Unison, another union, said it expected its 400,000 National Health Service workers — including nurses, paramedics, cleaners, cooks and patient transport — to strike Wednesday except for emergency workers.
The union said it did not expect emergency services to be affected, but some routine operations and clinics were canceled.
The proposed pension reforms have prompted wide anger among public sector workers, many of whom say they are bearing the brunt of austerity measures imposed to try to rein in Britain’s deficit.
Negotiations between the government and unions to try to ward off the industrial action broke down in the days leading up to the strike.
The Home Office said “robust arrangements” were in place at airports and points of entry to compensate for the strike, with managers, contractors and foreign staff trained up to fill the gap.
“Securing the border is our priority and over the last weeks and months we have considered all options to ensure we are prepared for union action,” UK Border Agency chief executive Rob Whiteman said in a statement.
“We always aim to minimize any disruption caused by the decision of unions to strike, but travelers could see longer waiting times at some ports and airports.”
Meanwhile, Chancellor George Osborne, the British finance minister, announced a pay raise cap of 1% for public sector workers for two years after the current pay freeze ends, as he lowered growth forecasts in an assessment of the economy Tuesday.
He said that while Britain had regained stability after the financial crisis, it had been “hit by a series of shocks which have significantly weakened the economic and fiscal outlook.”
His report blames higher-than-expected inflation, the uncertainty created by the crisis in the eurozone and the impact of the 2008-2009 financial crisis, the full scale of which is now clearer.
The Labour Party argues that the poor growth is a result of the government’s spending cuts and tax hikes, which it says have squeezed the recovery too hard.
Brendan Barber, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), said Tuesday that public-sector workers would not accept the proposed reforms.
“Public servants are no longer being asked to make a temporary sacrifice but accept a permanent deep cut in their living standards that will add up to over 16% by 2015 when you include pay and pension contributions,” he said Tuesday.
“It is no wonder that the government has alienated its entire work force, who are coming together in unprecedented unity tomorrow to take a stand against such unfair treatment.”