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Britain Hit by Public Sector Strike

As many as a million-and-a-half British government workers have gone on strike against proposed changes to their pension rules.

Local government workers have mounted picket lines across Britain, shutting down thousands of schools, and closing roads and ferries in parts of England, halting bus service in Northern Ireland, garbage collection in Scotland and many other public services around the nation.

Union leaders say it is Britain's biggest strike in 80 years.

The strike is against a proposal that would make employees work longer to collect their pensions. Current rules allow local government workers to retire on pension at age 60 with at least 25 years of service. The government of Prime Minister Tony Blair intends to increase the retirement age for local government workers to 65 in October.

Unison is the biggest of 11 unions that joined the walkout, and its national secretary, Heather Wakefield, says more strikes are likely if the government does not back down.

"We will go on to have more action if we do not win the dispute," she says. "Obviously we are hoping we can win this dispute through negotiation and we have been negotiating for a long time now."

The Local Government Association says taxes will have to go up by at least two percent to pay pensions under the current rules. Steve Bullock is a director of the employer's group.

"On the one hand, people are living longer, which is great news, but that means they draw their pensions for longer, so every pension scheme has got a serious problem and what we need is a pension scheme that will be sustainable into the future," he says.

Demographers say Britain and other countries across Europe will face a pensions crisis in the coming decades, as the population ages and the number of workers decline.

A British commission has recommended raising the retirement age for a state pension to 68, and Parliament plans to take up pension reform later this year.