11/26/2011 11:35 EST | Updated 01/26/2012 05:12 EST

Airports, schools, hospitals to be hit in major UK strike over public sector pensions

LONDON - Long lines snaking through airport immigration halls, hospital operating theatres empty, thousands of schools closed — Britain's government warned Saturday that plans for the country's largest strike in decades could lead to tougher laws on industrial action.

As many as 2 million public workers are expected to join a one-day walkout on Wednesday, with airlines warning passengers arriving at London's Heathrow and other airports could face 12-hour delays at immigration halls as U.K. Border Agency staff join the action.

Teachers, garbage collectors, construction workers and some medical staff are also among those who will strike in an escalating row over planned changes to public sector pensions.

The walkout is expected to top the scale of Britain's 1979 strikes — when tens of thousands of people halted work over pay disputes. Some labour unions claim the action could even eclipse Britain's 1926 general strike, when about 1.75 million people joined walkouts.

In the latest dispute, workers oppose government demands that they work longer before receiving a pension, contribute more money each month and accept a pension calculated using their average career salary, rather than their final salary.

Ministers insist that Britain has no option but to reform its pension system because people are living for longer, and because the gap between contributions and pension payments is growing.

Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude was quoted as telling the Daily Telegraph newspaper on Saturday that the strike — which the government claims could cost Britain's economy as much as 500 million pounds ($770 million) — would be "stupid and wrong."

He claimed the fact that some of the labour unions involved have the support of less than 50 per cent of their members undermines the case for the walkouts.

"If very disruptive strike action is carried out on the basis of these weak ballots, weak turnouts, the case for reform gets stronger," Maude said, threatening to tighten laws covering strikes.

Britain's government says thousands of operations and medical appointments have already been cancelled in anticipation of the strike, with about 400,000 nurses, paramedics, physiotherapists and support staff expected to join the action — though the country's three main medical unions are not taking part.

Civil service staff — including workers at Prime Minister David Cameron's office — and contractors will be drafted in to cover for striking immigration officials at Britain's borders, though most airlines have advised passengers to reschedule any journeys planned for Wednesday.

The lines at Heathrow's immigration counters are expected to be so long that passengers will need to be held on planes, airport operator BAA has warned.

Treasury minister Danny Alexander has urged labour unions to accept a deal proposed by the government, which includes some concessions for low earners and those within 10 years of retiring.

"I reserve the right to take those enhancements off the table if an agreement can't be reached," Alexander was quoted as telling The Guardian newspaper on Saturday. "I don't want to do that. I don't want to be in that position. I want to be in a position where we have got an agreement."

Brian Strutton, the national secretary of the GMB labour union, which represents about 600,000 local government and health sector workers, said the government appeared more interested in issuing threats than negotiating a resolution.

"Only a last minute breakthrough in negotiations can stop the strike but that isn't going to happen if we are not even meeting," Strutton said.