(Reuters) - Teachers and civil servants marched through the streets and picketed government buildings across Britain on Thursday 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.
"We are here to protect our own pensions. We are also fighting for pensions and against overall government cuts generally. I'm worried about my own retirement because when I add up what I'm going to get, it's just not liveable," said Simon Korner, a 54-year-old lecturer.
Thursday'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 per cent of schools were expected to close on Thursday and another 40 per cent 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 per cent 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.
"It's about standing up to the bully," said sports teacher Martin Patching at a rally in Welwyn Garden City, north of London. "I hate striking but it gets to the point where you've got to stand up with your colleagues and say enough's enough."
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 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 per cent.
Consequently, workers face higher contributions to their pensions and longer working lives. The proposals have hit a raw nerve at a time of wage freezes and job insecurity.
Union leaders assert that their members are bearing the brunt of a financial crisis caused by rich bankers.
Analysts said the protests would challenge the government anew after it retreated on plans to restructure state-funded health care following lobbying from the medical profession.
Markets, which have reacted positively to government deficit-cutting plans, would take fright at any sign of a government climb-down over an issue like pensions.
Some Britons sympathize with the strikers but others say they are being unrealistic at a time when households have suffered their biggest fall in disposable income for more than 30 years.
"The state of the country is pretty bad. They are a bit too focused on themselves," said Michael Hayes, a railway manager from the London suburb of Chingford.