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Big pensions strike hits UK schools, travel

Written by: Staff
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LONDON, Mar 28 (Reuters) Up to 1.5 million local government workers went on strike across Britain today closing thousands of schools and disrupting travel in a growing row over pensions.

Eleven labour unions combined to stage the 24-hour protest which they said would be the biggest strike since 1926.

They intend to make it the first in a series of demonstrations against a plan to force some public sector employees to work longer, or face a reduced pension if they retire at 60.

The British action coincided with a huge labour protest in France over a new job law. French airports were expected to be affected but the Eurostar line from London to Paris was running.

In Liverpool, commuters faced disruption as the Mersey river tunnels shut and ferries stopped running. All buses and trains were cancelled in Northern Ireland and in London 70 per cent of schools failed to open.

The Tower of London was also closed and the river Thames anti-flood barrier reduced to emergency staffing levels. One airport, the regional Leeds Bradford, suffered minimal delays.

At issue is the government's decision to scrap the so-called 85-year rule, which states that members of the Local Government Pension Scheme can retire at 60 on a full pension if their age and years of service add up to 85 or more.

The unions argue that other, better paid, public sector workers are still allowed to retire at 60 and that the law targets those in lower paid, more menial jobs.

The change is due to come into effect in October this year.

LOW PAID SUFFER Britain's state and private pensions system is creaking from the rising cost of an ageing workforce. On one measure, the country is facing a 57 billion pound shortfall in retirement savings which is around five percent of GDP.

Many industrialised nations, including the United States, Germany and Japan, have similar problems. As people live longer, birth rates fall and populations age, fewer people are working to support an increasing number of pensioners.

A commission created in 2004 to look at the problem has proposed raising the age at which people take a state pension from 65 now to at least 67 by 2050.

Employees in the Local Government scheme include carers, charity workers, refuse collectors and people who work in call centres, environmental services and housing associations.

Brian Strutton, national secretary of the GMB union, said his workers just wanted to see fairness in the system.

''Why should thousands of low paid, long serving dinner ladies and classroom assistants lose a quarter of their pension for retiring at 60 when the better paid teachers they work alongside can retire on an unreduced pension,'' he said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for Unison, the country's biggest union, said they had seen solid support across the country.

REUTERS DKS BST1715

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