Wednesday 21 March 2018

Two million join ‘historic’ British public sector workers’ strike over pensions

Alan Jones

A STRIKE by up to two million public sector workers was hailed as "historic" today - closing schools, courts, museums and jobcentres, and disrupting transport, hospitals and Government departments in the UK.

Unions reported huge support for the 24-hour walkout in the bitter row over pensions, but warnings of massive delays at Heathrow airport failed to materialise, with passengers saying border controls were "better than usual".

Union officials accused the Government of "ramping up" possible airport disruption and claimed that "under-trained" staff had been drafted in to cover striking immigration and passport workers.

"Some of those on duty today don't have proper security clearance. They are not qualified to do the job properly, which is a concern. We will take this up after the strike ends," said an official from the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union.

The PCS said reports from picket lines showed a "huge" turnout for the strike, with up to 90% of staff in some Government departments, including Revenue and Customs, taking action.

General secretary Mark Serwotka said: "I have been to pickets around central London and spirits are sky-high, with many other unions besides PCS out on strike.

"People should be very proud of the stand they are making today, in contrast to the shame of the Government. Public sector workers have come together today to show their united opposition to the Government's prolonged and concerted attacks on their pensions, jobs and communities."

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey, who will address a rally in London later, said November 30 would go down as the day when the union movement and workers fought to protect the economic and welfare advances of the last 60 years.

"The fight to protect public service pensions is the latest battle that working people and their families have had to mount to protect the social and economic advances that have been achieved since 1945.

"But now working people are being asked to pay for the economic mess caused by the greedy City elite whose behaviour this spineless Government has repeatedly failed to tackle.

"When Francis Maude, the Government's lead pensions negotiator, can receive a pension of £43,000 a year, but nurses, teachers, dinner ladies, firefighters and librarians have to pay substantially more, work longer and receive less in real terms when they retire, the mantra of 'We are all in this together' has a very hollow and shabby ring.

"This is a Government that will snatch at least 16% of income from public sector workers by holding down their pay for four years - but leaves the banking tax at a paltry 0.08%."

More than 8,000 probation and family court staff joined the pension strike.

Jonathan Ledger, general secretary of their union Napo, said: "The Government's attack on public sector pensions is outrageous. Members are being asked to work longer, pay more contributions and receive less pension when they finally retire.

"This is blatantly being done to pay for their deficit and bankers' mismanagement. A strike was therefore inevitable."

Hospital employees and workers on the Mersey tunnels were among the first to take action from midnight, setting up picket lines and holding up banners attacking the Government's pension reforms.

Early Government figures suggested that almost three in four schools were affected by the walkout, although that number could rise.

Cabinet Office minister Mr Maude said: "I want to thank the majority of dedicated and committed public sector workers who have turned up to work today to deliver essential services.

"I can reassure the public that we are doing all that we can to keep essential services open. Our rigorous contingency planning is in place across all sectors to limit the impact of the strike action. Early indications show it is working well and that the majority of key public services remain open.

"Today's strike is inappropriate, untimely and irresponsible, especially while talks are ongoing. Responsibility for any disruption which people may experience today lies squarely with union leaders.

"Claims this morning that there are no negotiations going on are simply not true. There were formal discussions with the Civil Service unions only yesterday and there will be formal discussions with the teaching unions tomorrow and health on Friday.

"In addition, there are frequent informal contacts between the Government and the TUC. All of this underlines how indefensible today's strike is while these talks at scheme level are moving forward."

Debbie Arnell, a 42-year-old apprenticeship assessor from Bournemouth who had flown back to Heathrow's terminal five after a holiday in Philadelphia, said there appeared to be "more staff than usual" at passport control.

She said: "I have used this terminal seven times before and today was better than usual.

"They were even giving out free fruit and water, which they don't usually do. It's almost like they have over-compensated."

Some major roads in Tyne and Wear were jammed today, with queues on the A167 Tyne Bridge and slow-moving traffic on a number of other routes in the area.

Channel Tunnel high-speed train company Eurostar warned passengers travelling from Paris and Brussels to London to get to their departure station well ahead of time in case of delays.

David Cameron's official spokesman said the Prime Minister would "praise" public sector workers who ignored the strike call and went in to work.

The spokesman said Mr Cameron regards the pension offer as "fair" to both public sector workers and taxpayers and believes it will deliver pensions which are "amongst the very best available", with some low-paid workers receiving more than under the current system.

If the Government had not imposed a pay freeze, followed by a 1% annual cap, on public sector workers then more jobs would have been lost, he added.

"By freezing and capping pay, we are preserving jobs in the public sector," said the PM's spokesman. "There will be more jobs than there would otherwise be."

Asked whether Mr Cameron backed workers who have chosen to cross picket lines, the spokesman said: "We support people's right to work and the Prime Minister made this clear last week.

"He said people should ignore the call for strike action and go ahead and come to work so the public are not inconvenienced, and I am sure he would praise that."

The spokesman denied union claims that no talks were ongoing, saying Mr Maude and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander had met full union delegations 12 times this year, as well as taking part in other informal meetings. Discussions on individual pension schemes in the civil service, teaching, healthcare and local government were taking place on a weekly basis, he added.

In a message on Twitter, Labour leader Ed Miliband said: "I'm not going to condemn public servants who feel they're in an impossible position.

"It is the Government's failure that has led to today's strike."

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