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Thousands of British union workers strike

LONDON -- Hundreds of thousands of British teachers and public sector workers swapped classrooms and offices for picket lines yesterday in what unions hope will be the first salvo in a summer of discontent against the Conservative-led government's austerity plans.

Airport operators had warned there could be long lines at immigration entry points because of walkouts by passport officers, but most of Britain's airports, including London's Heathrow and Manchester, said it was business as usual.

One union leader estimated more than 500,000 teachers and civil servants joined the one-day strike, affecting courthouses, tax offices and employment centers, as well as schools.

The government estimated 100,000 strikers -- although its tally did not include teachers, whose walkout closed or disrupted 11,000 schools in England and Wales.

"This is the best-supported strike we've ever had," union leader Mark Serwotka told Channel 4 News.

But the government disputed the claims, saying the strike wasn't as well-supported as the unions were making it out to be.

"Very few civil servants wanted this strike at all," Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said in a statement.

Small groups of anti-capitalist protesters scuffled with police as the march neared Parliament, and were cordoned in by officers. Police said 41 people had been arrested over the past 24 hours, although the demonstrations were overwhelmingly peaceful.

The government insists everyone must share the pain as it cuts $130 billion from public spending to reduce Britain's huge deficit, swollen after the government spent billions bailing out foundering banks.

It is cutting civil service jobs and benefits, raising the state pension age from 65 to 66, hiking the amount public sector employees contribute to pensions and reducing their retirement payouts.

London police said almost all of its civilian staff who answer emergency and non-emergency calls had walked out.

The force drafted in police officers to cover the shortfall. Even employees at Prime Minister David Cameron's office walked out on the job -- although officials put the figure at "fewer than five."

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