British Strike Begins Drive to Save Public Pensions

British public workers marched in 80 cities to tell the Conservative government not to raise their retirement age to 66 and cut their pensions. Photo: ajehals.

Protesting proposed cuts in pensions, about 600,000 public sector workers struck across Britain last week, according to union estimates.

Teachers in primary schools, universities, and adult education were joined by civil servants from employment centers, border agencies, police emergency call centers, and even some at the Prime Minister’s residence, 10 Downing Street.

The four unions representing these workers had voted to strike together for one day, June 30, in an unusual show of solidarity.

Rallies were held in about 80 towns and cities. The biggest was in central London, where 28,000 marched past the Houses of Parliament. The crowd was surprisingly young, with many striking for the first time and clearly feeling good about it.

The strike and rallies followed a massive national mobilization on March 26 that drew some 750,000 marchers in opposition to an entire package of government cuts.

Work till You Drop

The pension cuts threatened by the coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are drastic. The retirement age is to be raised from 60 to 66. Employees will have to contribute 3 percent more of their salaries and the level of pension payments will be reduced from the current “final year” basis to a “career-average” basis, over the entire time on the job.

This comes on top of a pay freeze in effect for the past two years. The Trade Union Congress (TUC), the federation of most British unions, estimates workers will lose 4 percent to 10 percent of weekly income just from the pay freeze and increased pension contributions.

The stress on teachers from working more years will be enormous. One teacher told the press, “The people making these decisions do not understand what it is like to teach in front of five-year-olds.”

A sign at the London rally read, “We won’t work until Death.”

Negotiations continued this week with the unions, and are expected to continue through the fall.

Tin-Plated Pensions

The government calls public sector pensions excessive and cites a well-known report to the effect that pensions are unsustainable at current levels because the workforce now lives longer.

But the same report denies that they are “gold-plated” and shows that even at current levels their cost relative to the Gross Domestic Product would fall over the next 40 years. The median public employee pension is about $8,500 a year.

The government and media say the strike is not popular. In fact, the nation appears opposed to the government’s pension “reforms,” if somewhat more divided over the actual strike. A poll taken just before June 30 showed 47 percent opposed to the government’s “reforms,” while only 37 percent supported them. Another poll taken during the strike found the public evenly divided over the strike, with 41 percent saying it was justified and 42 percent disagreeing.

While only a third of private sector workers said they supported the strike, they may want to think twice. A recent report by the independent Labour Research Department argued that the public sector pay freezes of the past two years “are beginning to make their mark on overall pay trends.”

Pay freezes, they report, have returned to the private sector as private employers emulate government policy. In other words, any retreats by public employee unions are likely to harm private sector workers, too.

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Under British labor law, pensions were the common issue that the unions could legally strike over together. But there was much more on the minds of the strikers and the public. All in all, the government’s cuts package could cost as many as 500,000 public sector jobs by 2015, part of the Tories’ plan to chop 25 percent of public employment.

Services to the elderly, the unemployed, and others in need are already being cut to the bone. The Post Office is being privatized. The much-loved National Health Service is under threat of being torn apart by competition from market “reforms.”

Many of those at the June 30 rallies carried signs that said simply “No Cuts.”

Public workers understand that these cuts are all about paying for government budget deficits brought on by the recession and the big bank bailout of 2008.

One speech by TUC head Brendan Barber might have sounded familiar in Wisconsin or Ohio: “The burden of deficit reduction is being piled unfairly on to millions of low- and medium-paid public sector workers who did nothing to cause the crash.”

Many are predicting even more public sector strikes in the fall.

Although the balloting process for legal strikes can be complicated, public workers are not prevented by law from striking as they are in most U.S. states. The collective agreements that cover these employees are national.

The four unions that struck last week are the National Union of Teachers, which represents most school teachers; the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, a smaller union for which this was the first strike in its 127 years; the University and College Union (UCU), representing faculty; and the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), the union of civil servants.

For members of the UCU this was the second one-day strike in recent weeks. The PCS has called a month-long overtime ban following the June 30 strike.

PCS head Mark Serwotka said actions in the fall would be “much bigger and will involve more unions.”

The 1.3 million-member union that includes many National Health Service and municipal workers, UNISON, did not strike this time, but its leader has also made militant noises.

Even the doctors’ union, the staid British Medical Association, voted overwhelmingly at its recent convention to ballot for “all forms of industrial action” if the government does not retreat on pensions.

Britain’s public employees will soon be joining their European counterparts in escalating labor unrest.


Kim Moody, former director of Labor Notes, lives in London and was on strike June 30 with the University and College Union.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #388, July 2011. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.