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A protester shouts through a megaphone as thousands take part in a march for the public sector strikes on November 30, 2011 in London, England. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images/Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
A protester shouts through a megaphone as thousands take part in a march for the public sector strikes on November 30, 2011 in London, England. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images/Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

British strike calls to mind a milder 'winter of discontent' Add to ...

The streets are absolutely teeming with children, the parks filled with parents working their BlackBerries while watching their kids, and the international airports nearly vacant, their passport desks staffed with well-known senior government officials in good suits.

It’s a general strike, British-style: On Wednesday, more than half the country’s public employees have walked off the job to protest the deep cuts to public-sector pay and pensions being imposed by Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative-Liberal coalition government in a major cost-cutting drive.

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In practice, it means that most kids didn’t go to school today – 58 per cent of public primary and secondary schools are closed completely, and only 13 per cent are fully staffed. Hospitals are only taking emergency cases, as most nurses are on strike.

In fact, the school where Mr. Cameron and one of his top cabinet minister, Michael Gove, send their children, St. Mary Abbots Primary School in Kensington, was largely shut down, with only two classes open.

And it means that very few people are coming to Britain from abroad. With almost all the customs officers absent from their passport stations, people have stayed away from airports in droves. So have airlines: At Manchester Airport, only 26 of 176 scheduled international flights arrived today.

Those passengers who did arrive were sometimes surprised to find very senior officials checking their passports: Policy advisors from 10 Downing Street were asked to head to Heathrow and staff the customs desks.

Because so many people avoided the airport, those who did travel found it easier than usual, even though only a fraction of customs desks were open: “No line, zero wait time – never been through faster,” said Roland Paris, a University of Ottawa professor who arrived at Heathrow Wednesday morning for a conference.

Garbage collectors, social workers, street cleaners, and some workers at museums and children’s centres also closed (to the inconvenience of parents stuck with their kids).

The strike had been planned weeks in advance, after talks between Mr. Cameron’s government and unions broke down over increases to pension costs, part of a huge scaling-back of public services as part of an austerity program designed to slash borrowing dramatically.

But the strikers were given extra ammunition on Tuesday when George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced in an emergency budget revision that the austerity program had starved the government of tax revenues, causing borrowing to increase sharply.

As a result, he announced an emergency pay-raise cap for all public employees, limiting their raises to one per cent per year through 2013 – which effectively amounts to a large pay cut, since Britain is currently experiencing inflation rates of more than five per cent.

The strike had broad public support, with polls published by the BBC, the Guardian and the Daily Mail finding that a strong majority (61, 79 and 90 per cent, respectively) said they “support” the strikes.

Mr. Cameron and his officials denounced the strike as the irresponsible act of naïve unions, and said that it would have the perverse effect of choking off the economy and thus the tax revenues that are needed for public-sector pay.

“The strike is not going to achieve anything. It’s not going to change anything,” Mr. Osborne said. “It is only going to make our economy weaker and potentially cost jobs.”

Francis Maude, the Cabinet Secretary and therefore the man responsible for negotiating with the unions, dismissed them bitterly: “Today’s strike is inappropriate, untimely and irresponsible, especially while talks are ongoing,” he said. “Responsibility for any disruption which people may experience today lies squarely with union leaders.”

But for many people, the strikes were stark reminders of the “winter of discontent” in 1979, when much of Britain was on strike, often for months. Mind you, this was much milder: Except for a few labour hotspots in Northern Ireland and Scotland, it was possible to go through the day without feeling the effects of the strike, unless you had kids in school.

“I think the public realizes that the reason this strike is going ahead is because of the intransigence from the government and their determination to simply force changes through,” said Brendan Barber, head of the Trades Union Congress. “This is a tax on working-class people to pay for a crisis caused by the failure of the banks. Why are the bankers not being taxed and still receiving their bonuses?”

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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