UK public sector workers walk out

About 750,000 teachers and other public sector workers in the United Kingdom today staged a 24-hour strike that shut down schools and other public services to demand that the government back off its attempt to reduce their pensions.

“This is the best supported strike we’ve ever had,” said Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS). “Today we sent a clear message to the government that (we) will not tolerate these attacks on (our) hard-earned pensions rights and will fight the cuts that threaten to devastate our communities and jobs.”

Earlier in the week, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg chided public sector workers for what he called their “gold-plated pensions.”

At a support rally in London, Annie Holder, a part-time tutor at Lewisham College and member of the University and College Union (UCU), explained what it means to have a gold-plated pension. “One thing that used to provide me with some comfort was the thought that, although my work is not secure or plentiful, at least I could expect some sort of pension when I retired,” Holder said.   “Not that much – about £60 week.”

Despite her meager pension, the government wants Holder and others like her to increase their pension contribution by 3 percent, wait until 67 to retire with full benefits, have their pension calculated on an average of earnings rather than on the highest wage earned, and have cost-of-living increases calculated on a new formula that lowers the amount of raises.

At the same rally, Sally Hunt, UCU’s general secretary, told the crowd that the government is demanding sacrifice from those who can’t afford it while the richest are encouraged to pile up more wealth. “The average pension of a female college lecturer is just £6,000,” Hunt said. “This is a government that has already presided over an increase in the income of the richest 1000 people by 18%. How dare they call us gold-plated. How dare they to preach to us about fairness.”

In a media statement, PCS’s Serwotka explained the impact that the proposed cuts would have on a typical government worker. A Department of Work and Pension worker now eligible for a £16,000 a year pension “will lose about £150,000 over 20 years of retirement,” Serwotka said. “The government is involved in a race to the bottom.”

The government, which has been negotiating over pensions with representatives of public sector workers, has said that it must lower public sector pensions to close the budget gap caused by the Great Recession. But Serwotka said that the people least able to pay are bearing the brunt of the proposed cuts. “This government is forcing some of the most vulnerable people in our society to pay for a crisis that was not of their making,” Serwotka said. “There is an alternative to the government’s cuts–invest in public services, grow the economy and close the £120 billion tax gap (a reference to tax money lost as a result of tax avoidance and evasion by large companies and wealthy individuals).”

The government earlier in the week suggested that rank-and-file public sector workers wouldn’t support the strike, but more than 11,000 state schools were closed or partially closed as were more than 400 academies and city technology colleges. Many lectures at universities had to be canceled because professors and instructors walked of the job.

The strike affected other public services as well. PCS reports that 140 Revenue and Customs offices were closed or partially closed as were numerous job centers operated by the Department of Work and Pensions. Court workers also walked off the job postponing trials and hearings across the country.

“Our members have voted with their feet and supported the strike,” Serwotka said. “We are in it together with public sector workers, students, and pensioners defending everything we have fought for generations.

Because of the success of this strike, unions are considering a bigger action in October. Only four unions, PCS, UCU, the National Union of Teachers, and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers participated in this strike. A strike in October would include other public sector unions such as Unison, Britain’s largest public sector union, and First Division Association, a 19,000 member union of upper level managers.

“Three quarters of a million have been out today,’ Serwotka said. “There will be four million in October.”

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