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Yeoman Warders, commonly known as Beefeaters, protest outside the Tower of London on Jan. 22, 2019.HENRY NICHOLLS/Reuters

They’ve guarded the Tower of London for more than 500 years in their distinctive red-and-gold uniforms, but today the famous Beefeaters are embroiled in a very modern-day labour dispute.

On Tuesday, a group of Beefeaters, who are officially known as Yeomen Warders, walked off the job in a one-day protest over proposed changes to their pension plan. The dispute involves around 120 workers at the Tower and five royal palaces, and also includes gardeners, store clerks and some administrative staff. They’ve been waging a year-long battle with the charity that runs the landmarks, called Historic Royal Palaces (HRP), over a proposal to switch them from a defined-benefit to a defined-contribution pension plan.

“We’re doing this not to shut down the Tower but to bring publicity to this problem and try and put pressure on them,” said Michael Ainsley, an organizer with the GMB union that represents the workers. “If they aren’t happy to see us striking outside their iconic buildings, then hopefully that will put pressure on them.”

He added that the proposed change would sharply reduce the retirement income for the workers. Pensions in a defined-benefit plan are typically a guaranteed amount based on salary and length of service; in a defined-contribution plan, both employees and employers make contributions, but the amount an employee receives depends on the return the invested money makes. As in Canada, companies in Britain have been moving away from defined-benefit plans, arguing they are no longer sustainable.

The Beefeaters date back to 1485, when Henry VII set up a special unit of soldiers to guard prisoners in the Tower. Today, there are about 40 Beefeaters who are all retired soldiers and spend their time guiding tourists, guarding the crown jewels and participating in ceremonial events. It’s not clear where the nickname came from, but it’s believed that centuries ago the guards received a large portion of beef as part of their daily pay.

On Tuesday, a handful of Beefeaters and other workers picketed outside the Tower and Hampton Court, which both remained open. Mr. Ainsley said the Beefeaters aren’t allowed to wear their distinctive uniform on the picket line, and they can’t comment on the dispute. It’s the first time the Beefeaters have gone on strike in 55 years, he added. “They don’t do this lightly.”

The Tower of London is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Britain, attracting nearly three million visitors annually. Last year was a record year for HRP, with 4.7 million total visitors to the six historic sites it manages: the Tower, Kensington Palace, Hampton Court, Banqueting House, Kew Palace and Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland.

All of the palaces are officially owned by the Queen and used to be managed by a government department. HRP was created in 1998 to take over management and receives no public money, relying entirely on ticket sales, retail operations and donations.

At the time it was set up, HRP employees were put into a defined-benefit pension plan that mirrored the public-service plan. In 2002, the charity closed that plan, and all new hires went into a defined-contribution pension. Today, there are around 1,000 employees in total, but only 120 remain in the defined-benefit plan.

John Barnes, HRP’s chief executive, has said the pension plan is “financially unsustainable.”

“We have already offered substantial compensation and transition arrangements to the 11 per cent of our staff who are affected during a lengthy consultation,” he said in a statement. He added that the charity is sticking to its decision to make the change in April.

The union argues that HRP is enjoying substantial profits and can afford the defined-benefit plan. Last year, HRP reported record revenue of nearly £100-million ($172-million) and a profit of £3.1-million. According to the charity’s most recent financial statements, the pension plan has a deficit of £4.9-million, as of March 31, 2018, and total assets were £86.4-million. “They actually can afford it, but they want to spend the money on other things,” Mr. Ainsley said. He added that the union is planning more walkouts.

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