Hundreds of thousands of British public sector workers strike over planned pension changes

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Friday, July 1, 2011

Strikers march down Kingsway, London.
Photo: Harry Metcalfe.

Hundreds of thousands of British public sector workers went on strike across the country yesterday to protest planned changes to pensions. As industrial action swept the country, half of all schools were hit when teachers walked out, thousands of emergency service responders did not arrive at work, and there were warnings of immigration delays at Heathrow airport.

Police arrested 26 people as protesters picketed on a march in London, and riot police kettled demonstrators as clashes broke out. Reports vary, but it is thought that up to half of British state schools have been affected as employees did not turn up to work.

Mark Serwotka, the leader of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), said the strikes would serve as a "wake-up call" to the coalition government. "It's a very, very clear signal to the government that they have been rumbled," Serwotka said. "This is not about pensions, this is about making public sector workers pay for the economic problems, and we are determined to keep going until they change direction."

Government officials condemned the strike and said the planned changes to pensions, which would see teachers work until age 68 and get less from their pensions, were "fair to taxpayers" as Britain attempts to deal with a large budget deficit. A spokesperson for Downing Street insisted the strike was having a "minimal" impact and said the turnout suggested many public sector workers supported the pension changes.

Christine Blower, the general secretary of one of the striking unions, the National Union of Teachers (NUT), said the strike demonstrated "the anger and distress that this government is causing teachers." She said the "unjustified attacks" on the pensions of teachers "are nothing short of disgraceful." Speaking on BBC television programme Question Time, she added: "Much of this has already been imposed on teachers without negotiation, and when we say there are talks going on it's perfectly true that the government is talking but it isn't actually listening."

But despite government claims that the strike was having little impact, 5,679 schools were closed and another 4,999 were affected as teachers did not turn up for work. Michael Gove, the education secretary attacked the walkouts as "disappointing and unnecessary". Thousands of staff handling emergency 999 calls also striked and pickets were held outside courts as members of the PCS walked out in protest.

Cquote1.svg This is not about pensions, this is about making public sector workers pay for the economic problems, and we are determined to keep going until they change direction. Cquote2.svg

Mark Serwotka, PCS leader

Francis Maude, the cabinet office minister, also maintained that the strikes were wrong and said the low number of people walking out showed many supported the government's plans. "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 into work today," he said.

Senior Labour party figures including Ed Miliband, Tessa Jowell and John Denham said the strikes were unjustified until negotiations with the government had concluded. Mary Bousted of the NUT criticised Labour's lack of support for the striking workers: "The response of Ed Miliband has been a disgrace - he should be ashamed of himself. If our strike is a mistake, what has he done to oppose this devastating attack on our pensions? If the opposition will not defend our pensions, we will."

A largely peaceful march by 30,000 protesters took place through London, and the atmosphere was reported to be largely peaceful, but Metropolitan Police officials said 26 people had been arrested. At a meeting in Westminister, many left wing figures attacked the government plans. Ken Livingstone, a former mayor of London who is running for the job again next year, said the coalition government had "mishandled" the issue of pensions. "The government must end its attacks and negotiate on the core issues under contention," he added.


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