Teachers and civil servants marched through the streets and picketed government buildings across Britain today in protest at planned pension reforms, launching what could be a long period of labour unrest over austerity measures.
The strikes, echoing protests across continental Europe against austerity imposed to reduce debt, are the first in what unions say will be a wave of action against steps by the British government that will cut the value of public sector pensions.
This country is being led by people who are privileged, people who earn too much money... The gap between rich and poor is getting bigger. We don't think it should be us who are made to suffer for it, said Martin Pitcher, 35, a primary school teacher taking part in the biggest march in central London.
The march, which stopped traffic on some of London's main thoroughfares, involved thousands of workers and supporters carrying banners and blowing whistles.
Today's protests involved about one in eight public sector workers, but other unions are gearing up for stoppages later this year if talks break down. Some 45% of schools were expected to close today and another 40% were expected to partially shut, a teaching union estimated.
However, a government spokesman said early indications were that turnout was perhaps less than the unions had claimed. Exact numbers were not expected until later in the day.
Air passengers faced some delays as immigration officials joined a walkout that could involve up to 750,000 workers. Courts and government buildings were also affected.
The Metropolitan Police said 90% of staff dealing with calls from the public did not turn up for work. Dozens of marches and rallies were arranged across the country, and were expected to be generally peaceful.
Prime Minister David Cameron has condemned the strikes as irresponsible, saying that talks between unions and ministers have not concluded. But education union ATL said arguing that talks were still going on was misleading. Until the meeting last Monday we didn't know there was going to be another meeting in July, a spokeswoman said.
It's not something [going on strike] we do lightly. We've never done this before in our history. But the bottom line is we're worried about what the government is going to do to the long term future of teaching.
Cameron argues that longer life expectancy means public sector pensions must change to ensure that they are affordable. The changes are part of government plans by 2015 to virtually wipe out a budget deficit that peaked at more than 10% of GDP.