War of words over pensions strike as airport chaos looms

ministers and unions last night ramped up a war of words over next week’s strikes by public sector workers amid warnings of huge disruption to flights across the UK.

The 24-hour walk-out by up to two million workers on Wednesday is due to hit all UK airports.

At London Heathrow, airlines have been urged to cut by half numbers of passengers arriving on each international flight due to delays of up to 12 hours at border zones as immigration and passport staff join the action, while outbound flights face mass cancellations.

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Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude warned disruption at border controls was “absolutely unavoidable”.

He said: “The responsibility for disruption caused to the public and the economic damage that follows from that and the jobs that will be lost because of this strike lies with the union leaders who balloted while discussions were still going on and those union leaders who, on the basis of very low turnouts in those ballots, called strikes on that basis.”.

Unison yesterday launched a set of adverts showing the “real face” of the pensions crisis, including a custody detention officer, a nurse and a local government worker.

General secretary Dave Prentis said: “The majority of public sector workers are women, who are struggling to pay their bills and feed their families in the face of a pay freeze and rising inflation. These workers cannot afford to pay more and work longer to receive less in retirement.”

Labour does not back the strikes but former home secretary Alan Johnson yesterday said he sympathised with public sector staff.

The Hull West and Hessle MP said: “Every independent trade union can ballot under very strict rules. If they can’t do that over an issue as important as their pensions then what can they take industrial action over? On this issue I think the Government generally want to negotiate a settlement but they started off badly.”

Heathrow gridlock: Page 7. Comment: Page 14.