LONDON -- Already coping with a shortage of private security staff, the organizers of the 2012 Olympic Games in London are now facing the threat that thousands of government employees responsible for safeguarding the nation's borders will go on strike next Thursday, on the eve of opening day.
But Sebastian Coe, chairman of the Games, defiantly told the BBC on Friday that Britain would offer “a safe and secure” international event.
With athletes and spectators adding to the normal workload of already struggling border staff checking immigration lines, the union representing airport immigration staff and passport and criminal records employees announced a 24-hour strike for next week and a ban on overtime for the duration of the Games, which run through Aug. 12.
Prime Minister David Cameron, on a visit to British troops in Afghanistan on Thursday, condemned the strike. “I do not believe it is right, I do not believe it will be justified,” he said.
Home Secretary Theresa May in media interviews called the union’s decision “shameful ... to strike on what is one of the key days for people coming into this country for the Olympic Games.”
She pointed out that only 1 in every 10 members of the Public and Commercial Services Union voted to strike; the move was approved by 57%, but only 20% of the 16,000 Home Office employees cast ballots.
"They should really think again,” May declared.
She promised the government had contingency plans in place so that “we can ensure that people coming into [Britain] to visit for the Olympic Games and others will have a good experience as they come through the border.”
Coe told the BBC radio morning news Today show, "We have got the numbers, courtesy of the military and our police services."
The union has long been fighting government austerity cuts that include pay freezes and the loss of 8,500 jobs in the Immigration and Border sector.
"The lives of staff have been made intolerable by these cuts and they're at breaking point," union chief Mark Serwotka said in a statement Thursday. "Ministers have known about these issues for a very long time and need to act now to sort out the chaos they have caused."
The strikers will be joined by some 400 train drivers who have voted to strike Aug. 6-8 in a dispute over pension cuts.
The government had already enlisted the armed forces and police to supplement a huge security force for the Games, in what many see as the biggest outlay of home defense since World War II.
The strike call follows a last-minute failure by a private security company G4S to provide a full contingent of the more than 10,000 Olympic private security guards promised. Last week, an extra 3,500 troops were drafted to fill the gap, raising the number committed to the event to 17,000. A further 1,200 troops are on standby.
-- Janet Stobart
Photo: Armed police officers and British soldiers on Friday guard one of the gates to the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy venue, which will be the host for Olympic sailing events. Credit: Matt Cardy / Getty Images.