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UK's first mass strike in 30 years

As many as two million public sector workers including teachers, nurses and border guards have gone on strike over UK pension reforms.

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LONDON: Britain experienced its worst disruption to services in decades yesterday as more than 2 million public sector workers staged a nationwide strike, closing schools and bringing councils and hospitals to a virtual standstill.

The strike by more than 30 unions over cuts to public sector pensions started at midnight, leading to the closure of most state schools; cancellation of refuse collections; rail service and tunnel closures; the postponement of thousands of non-emergency hospital operations; and ''horrific'' delays at airports and ferry terminals.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) said it was the biggest stoppage in more than 30 years and comparable to the last mass strike by 1.5 million workers in 1979. Hundreds of marches and rallies were due to take place across the country. Pickets began to form before dawn at hospitals, Whitehall departments, ports and colleges.

Members of the University and College Union prepare placards for a protest march by British public sector workers.

Objection ... members of the University and College Union prepare placards for a protest march by British public sector workers. Photo: AFP

The strikes were called over government plans to overhaul pensions for all public sector workers, cutting employer contributions, raising personal contributions and, it emerged on Tuesday, increasing the state retirement age to 67 in 2026, eight years earlier than originally planned.

Union leaders were further enraged after the Chancellor, George Osborne, announced that as well as a public sector pay freeze for most until 2013, their pay rises would be capped at 1 per cent for two years after that.

He also warned families would suffer six more years of economic pain in the form of falling living standards, rising unemployment and unprecedented public spending cuts.

Households will suffer effective pay cuts until 2014, with higher-rate taxpayers losing 5 per cent of their income due to government austerity measures, official forecasts showed.

This year will have seen the worst squeeze on living standards since the Second World War and the turmoil caused by the euro zone crisis means that conditions could get even worse, Mr Osborne said.

The TUC said the strike would also include tens of thousands of border agency staff, probation officers, radiographers, librarians, job centre staff, courts staff, social workers, refuse collectors, midwives, road sweepers, cleaners, school caterers, paramedics, tax inspectors, customs officers, passport office staff, police civilian staff, driving test examiners, patent officers and health and safety inspectors.

Unions and employers struck local deals to avoid disruption to emergency operations and essential services at hospitals, mental health units and residential care units for children.

The Prospect union exempted from strike action staff who work in 100 essential defence posts, including intelligence analyst posts at British bases in Afghanistan and civil servants supplying frontline troops.

Heathrow airport, which last week warned passengers they could face delays of 12 hours waiting to pass through immigration, was instead expecting waits of two to three hours. Police officers had been drafted in to assist with passport checks.

British Airways, the largest operator at Heathrow, said it was planning to operate its full schedule. Other airlines scrapped flights because of the walkouts. Etihad Airways said it cancelled three planes to Heathrow from Abu Dhabi, while Singapore Airlines dropped two flights to London, saying that there was a ''significant risk'' passengers would be unable to disembark.

Guardian News & Media; Telegraph, London; Bloomberg