At least half of Britain’s schools were closed and tens of thousands of routine medical appointments were postponed as public-sector workers marched through the streets Wednesday in the largest labor strike here in decades.
Up to 2 million public employees across Britain — including teachers, immigration officials, hospital staff and other civil servants — staged a 24-hour strike to protest pension reforms and other austerity measures, union organizers said.
The strikes came against a backdrop of economic gloom for Britain, with Finance Minister George Osborne outlining measures Tuesday that for public-sector workers would spell even more pain.
Speaking to Parliament, Osborne angered millions when he announced that public-sector workers would be subject to a salary raise cap of 1 percent once their current pay freeze ends. Britain’s inflation rate is 5 percent.
Osborne also told Parliament that although Britain has its own currency and is outside the 17-nation euro zone, the country could slip into recession if the debt crisis engulfing Europe continues to escalate.
“If the rest of Europe heads into a recession, it may prove hard to avoid one here in the U.K.,” Osborne said.
The Office for Budget Responsibility, a government-sponsored forecasting body that acts independently, also issued a string of dire predictions Tuesday. It said that Britain will borrow an additional $172 billion over the next five years, derailing the government’s original five-year plan to eliminate its deficit, and that public-sector job losses will total 710,000 by 2017 — 310,000 more than previously expected. It also slashed Britain’s growth forecast for next year to 0.7 percent, a dramatic fall from the prediction in March of 2.5 percent.
Wednesday’s strike was mainly over proposed reforms to pensions that would have the public sector contributing more and working longer.
Unions said that the strike, which also slowed transit, was the biggest since 1979, when widespread labor actions led to the “Winter of Discontent.” The unrest, in which gravediggers walked off the job, helped pave the way for Margaret Thatcher to become prime minister.
Brigid Falconer, 50, a social worker standing near the King’s Cross subway station in central London, said she was striking over “more than just my pension. It’s about what kind of society we want to have.
“I’m scared we will become more like America, with extremes in inequality,” she said.