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Public workers strike across U.K. over austerity pay cuts

Bloomberg

Public-sector workers in the United Kingdom walked out Thursday to protest pay, pensions and job cuts, closing schools, courts and libraries across the country.

Government employees belonging to Unite, Unison and the GMB labor groups joined members of the National Union of Teachers, the Fire Brigades Union and the Public and Commercial Services union in a day of action focused on below-inflation pay rises for workers across the public sector. The unions said more than 1 million workers went on strike, a number disputed by the government.

Last year, local government workers received a 1 percent increase after a three-year pay freeze imposed as part of Prime Minister David Cameron’s effort to reduce the U.K.’s budget deficit. They’ve been offered 1 percent again this year, while retail-price inflation was 2.4 percent last month, meaning a pay cut in real terms, according to the unions.

“The continuing pay freeze is damaging staff morale and service quality across the public sector, and today our members in local government and schools are saying enough is enough,” Unison General Secretary Dave Prentis said in a statement. “The government should look hard at the economic benefits of lifting the pay cap and ending the misery of low pay for public-service workers and their families.”

Schools, museums, crematoria and tax offices are among the services affected by the strikes, the unions said, and passing through immigration at airports may take longer than usual. The government said that most employees turned up to work, with the Cabinet Office estimating 80 percent of civil servants will be working today.

“We have rigorous contingency plans in place, services appear to be working well, and we expect most schools and job centers to open their doors,” the Cabinet Office said in a statement. “It is disappointing that, once again, some union leaders have pushed for strike action that will achieve nothing and benefit no one.”

Cameron urged workers to ignore the strike and said his Conservative Party will legislate to make it harder for people to withdraw their labor if it wins next year’s national election. The National Union of Teachers involvement is based on a ballot in which only 27 percent of members voted, and more should be required to support action, he said.

“I condemn these strikes and think people should turn up for work,” Cameron told lawmakers in the House of Commons in London yesterday. “The time has come to look at setting thresholds on strike ballots.”

Pay across most of the public sector has risen by 3 percent since Cameron came to power in 2010, compared to RPI inflation over the same period of almost 20 percent, Unison said. More than 400,000 workers are paid less than the “living wage” of £7.65 (¥1,326) an hour, or £8.80 pounds in London, the union said.

“Ministers praise public servants for their hard work and dedication but at the same time they are slashing their living standards,” PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka said in a statement. “As politicians of all parties justify pay cuts by repeating the lie that there’s no money around, and household incomes fall to their lowest for more than a decade, it is clear the so called economic recovery is not being felt by everyone.”