-by Sarah Lyall
June 30, 2011- London – Joining a growing wave of unrest in Europe over government austerity measures, tens of thousands of British teachers and public-sector workers walked off their jobs on Thursday to protest proposed changes to their pension plans.
More than 10,000 schools were affected by the strikes, as were universities, Social Security offices, courtrooms, airport customs desks and other government operations. Union officials warned that the strike could be the first of a series of walkouts here in the next few months, reflecting growing unhappiness over layoffs, salary freezes, tax increases and a persistently sluggish economy.
Much of the workers’ anger, said Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, has to do with a feeling of helplessness and resentment at having to suffer from the mistakes of bankers and others who caused the economic crisis. The government, Mr. Serwotka said in a statement, is “forcing some of the most vulnerable people in our society to pay for a crisis that was not of their making.”
Around Europe, workers are feeling the same way. In recent months, the Irish and Portuguese governments have been voted out of office on a tide of voter anger at their part in the financial upheavals and at the austerity measures that were imposed as a remedy. Britain has experienced waves of student protests, sometimes violent, over the government’s decision to increase tuition and cut education spending. In the past week, Greece has been convulsed with riots as residents reacted with fury to its harsh austerity package.
In Britain, it has come down to a test of Prime Minister David Cameron’s resolve, and his political fortunes, as he tries to hold firm to his stringent budget in the face of public unhappiness.
The issue exercising the strikers in Britain on Thursday was the government’s proposal to change their pension plans. Public pensions currently cost Britain nearly $50 billion a year, and the government says that with an aging population, the current pension arrangement is unsustainable.
As a result, it has proposed raising the working age to 66 by 2020, increasing the monthly amount that public-sector employees are required to contribute toward their pensions, and changing the way pensions are calculated. Under the current system, pensions are based on workers’ final salaries; the new plan would base them instead on an average career salary.
“Basically, it means we pay 50 percent more each month and get less when we retire,” said Olayinka Williams, 27, a middle manager at a secondary school in Camden, who took part in a large demonstration in central London.
Another protester, a 27-year-old teacher at an Islington elementary school, said that basing a pension on a career average, rather than a final salary, discriminated against women who take maternity leave or work part time to raise their children.
“We could have made a lot more in the private sector, but we chose to go into teaching,” said the teacher, who asked that her name not be used because she was afraid of reprisals from her school. The government’s budget cuts are really hitting home, she said: her parents, 55-year-old social workers, both lost their jobs this week.