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Pensions Strikes: Public Sector Workers Strike Over Government Pension Plans (Pictures)

30/11/2011 06:22 | Updated 30 November 2011

Public sector workers took to the streets in coordinated strikes against the government's cuts to public sector jobs and pensions, in what was billed as 'the biggest action for a generation'.

Union leaders claimed around two million teachers, nurses, civil servants and paramedics formed picket lines to protest against changes to their pensions schemes.

Transport was disrupted and the Borders Agency called for volunteers to help man immigration desks. However airports appeared to be largely unaffected by the strikes despite warnings of "a total shutdown in services".

According to figures from the Department for Education, 58% of England's 21,700 state schools were closed, with another 13% partly affected. In Scotland, only 30 council-run schools were reported to be open, while 80% of schools were shut in Wales and 50% in Northern Ireland.

The NHS was also disrupted, with NHS managers reporting that 6,000 out of 30,000 operations were cancelled across the UK.

Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the PCS, the largest civil service union, warned that unless the government makes more concessions on its pensions deal that the country would see more large-scale strikes.

Negotiations on the deal have been going on since February, but the government has indicated that its current proposals are non-negotiable.

“We will carry on trying to defend peoples’ retirement for as long as it takes until we get an acceptable outcome,” Serwotka told the Huffington Post UK on Tuesday.

There has been mixed report of services being affected around the country:

  • Some major roads in Tyne and Wear are jammed today, with queues on the A167 Tyne Bridge and slow-moving traffic on a number of other routes in the area.
  • Eurostar has warned passengers travelling from Paris and Brussels to London to get to their departing station well ahead of time in case of delays, but added: "So far, everything is fine, with no delays or cancellations."
  • Airport services in southern England seem to be unaffected, with flights at Luton airport in Bedfordshire and Stansted airport in Essex operating normally. There were also no delays at Manchester airport.
  • The ferry company P&O reports no disruption to its Dover-Calais services.

However, the expected queues at Heathrow failed to materialise due to an emergency plan put into action by BAA.

Following the industrial action the Metropolitan Police said it was helping the London Ambulance Service (LAS) to deal with emergency calls.

Commander Simon Pountain said: "It is normal for the emergency services to work together on large scale events and incidents and the MPS will provide whatever support is necessary to the LAS.

"Whilst these are exceptional circumstances, we will work with colleagues from the other blue light services to provide whatever support and assistance we can to help. All police officers are first aid trained."

One headteacher in Norwich did manage to keep her school open open despite the strike by inviting community leaders to take classes. A doctor, politician and journalist were among those who helped keep the Ormiston Victory Academy open, despite about half of the school's teachers joining the industrial action.

Despite the disruptions, David Cameron labelled the strike a "something of a damp squib".

Speaking to the House of Commons, the prime minister called the action "irresponsible and damaging".

"I want to thank all those people, including a number of people from 10 Downing Street, who are helping to keep our borders open and make sure Heathrow and Gatwick are working properly," he said.

"So far the evidence would suggest that around 40% of schools are open and less than a third of the civil service is actually striking.

"On our borders the early signs are the contingency measures are minimising the impact. We have full cover in terms of ambulance services and only 18 out of 900 JobCentres have closed.

"Despite the disappointment of the party opposite, that support irresponsible and damaging strikes, it looks like something of a damp squib."

Earlier, George Osborne called on unions to accept the government's pensions proposals and end the strike. Reiterating his request for the unions to return to talks in an interview with the BBC on Wednesday morning, the chancellor said: "The strike is not going to achieve anything, it's not going to change anything."

"It is only going to make our economy weaker and potentially cost jobs. So let's get back round the negotiating table, let's get a pension deal that is fair to the public sector, that gives decent pensions for many, many decades to come but which this county can also afford and our taxpayers can afford."

Speaking to ITN, Osborne urged repeated his message, urging union leaders to "sit down and negotiate,” adding: “it’s the right thing to do for the British economy.

However, the chancellor prefaced his call with an announcement on Tuesday that public sector workers would see their pay rewards slashed from 2% to 1% when their salary freezes end in 2012 and 2013. The number of public sector job cuts is expected to rise to 710,000 by 2017, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) said - an increase on its original forecast of 400,000.

On Wednesday morning, Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey offered strong words of defiance from the picket line, calling the government "spineless".

"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, fire-fighters 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."

Bob Crow, the head of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union, called the government's proposals "class war".

The government has said that the strikes could cost the UK economy £500m, a figure that TUC general secretary Brendan Barber called "fantasy economics".

“Today’s strike is inappropriate, untimely and irresponsible, especially while talks are ongoing, Francis Maude, minister for the Cabinet Office, said in a statement on Wednesday. "Responsibility for any disruption which people may experience today lies squarely with union leaders.

“We have listened to the concerns of public sector workers and that is why at the beginning of this month we put an improved offer on the table. The offer ensures that public sector pensions will remain among the very best available while also being fair and affordable to taxpayers. While discussions are continuing I would urge public sector workers to look at the offer for themselves rather than listening to the rhetoric of their union leaders. These are the sort of pensions that few in the private sector can enjoy."

Labour leader Ed Miliband took to Twitter to offer his thoughts on Wednesday's action, blaming the government for the walk-out.

The Cabinet Office also turned to the social network to refute claims that negotiations with the unions had broken down.

At the Institute for Economic Affairs, a think tank, director general Mark Littlewood said that the private sector should be furious at the strike action.

“The truth is that those striking today are disproportionately the protected, privileged and well paid. The issue at stake is whether those in relatively well paid jobs in the public sector should continue to have their enormously generous pension arrangements so heavily subsidised by those in the productive, private sector who earn less," Littlewood said.

“Only if you believe that hairdressers, waitresses and bar staff should pay for the comfortable retirement of headmasters, police inspectors and doctors, could you sympathise with the industrial action being taken today."

However, teachers defended their right to strike, saying "their hands had been tied".

"There are a lot of us who don't want to strike, but what choice do we have?" Katie, a teacher at a primary school in Berkshire, told The Huffington Post UK.

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