LONDON (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of British teachers and civil servants went on strike on Thursday in the opening salvo of what could be months of widespread industrial action over planned pension reforms and austerity measures.
Echoing protests across Europe against spending cuts imposed to reduce budget deficits, the strikes closed many schools, as well as a small number of courts and other public offices, while thousands joined rallies in cities and towns across the country.
Britain's year-old, center-right government said the impact was limited and many civil servants had ignored the industrial action, with the protests largely peaceful and modest in size.
"This country is being led by people who are privileged, people who earn too much money. The gap between rich and poor is getting bigger. We don't think it should be us who are made to suffer for it," said Martin Pitcher, 35, a primary (elementary) school teacher taking part in the biggest march in central London.
Police said the rally, which stopped traffic on some of the capital's main streets and around parliament, involved up to 15,000 people carrying banners and blowing whistles.
But there was no sign of the violence seen in recent days in Greece over its austerity plans, or at previous mass protests in London in December and March against government spending cuts. There were small scuffles with police and 35 arrests for minor offences.
The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union called the walkout the "biggest coordinated public sector strike for a generation" and said 84 percent of its 285,000 members had gone on strike against moves to cut pensions for state employees.
Around half of schools in England and Wales were closed or disrupted by the stoppage. Air travelers faced some delays as immigration officials joined the walkout.
Business groups also voiced concern, with some parents forced to miss a day's work to look after their children.
However, ministers said the disruption was minimal, arguing that a majority of civil servants had not gone on strike and contingency measures meant essential services continued to run.
"What today has shown is that the vast majority of hard working public sector employees do not support today's premature strike and have come in to work today," said Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, a member of Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative party.
The strikes, though, could be just the start of wider, labor stoppages with union leaders, who say their members are bearing the brunt of a financial crisis caused by rich bankers, warning of further action by Britain's 6 million public sector workers.
"It's about standing up to the bully," said sports teacher Martin Patching at a rally in Welwyn Garden City, north of London. "I hate striking but it gets to the point where you've got to stand up with your colleagues and say enough's enough."
Cameron has condemned the strikes as irresponsible, saying that talks between unions and ministers have not concluded.
He argues that longer life expectancy means public sector pensions must change, as many in the private sector have done, to ensure that they are affordable. The changes are part of government plans by 2015 to virtually wipe out a budget deficit that peaked at more than 10 percent of national income.
Consequently, workers face higher contributions to their pensions and retiring later in life. The proposals have hit a raw nerve at a time of wage freezes and job insecurity.
Analysts said the protests would challenge the government anew after it retreated on plans to restructure state-funded health care following lobbying from the medical profession.
Markets, which have reacted positively to government deficit-cutting plans, could take fright at any sign of a government climbdown over an issue like pensions.
"If Cameron backs down on this one, he's a busted prime minister," Nottingham University politics professor Steven Fielding told Reuters. "He's nailed his colors to the mast."
Some Britons sympathize with the strikers but others say they are being unrealistic at a time when households have suffered their biggest fall in disposable income for more than 30 years.
"They're not paying for my pension. I work for myself -- I have to provide my own pension," said Martyn Hall, a 50-year-old IT consultant from London. "I think it's a case of get real, this is the way it is."
Additional reporting by Avril Ormsby, Adrian Croft and Michael Holden; Writing by Keith Weir and Jodie Ginsberg; Editing by David Stamp