Two million UK public sector workers strike

Two million public sector workers in the United Kingdom walked off their jobs on November 30 to protest government plans to reduce their pensions and take home pay. Morning Star called the mass action “the strongest show of union strength in a generation.” Thirty unions took part in the historic one-day strike that included teachers, health care workers, social workers, care givers, police staff, and many other public sector workers.

“The government is carrying out a massive raid on pensions, which is a reflection of its unrelenting mismanagement of the economy,” said Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), one of the unions supporting the strike.

“Working people are being asked to pay for the economic mess caused by the greedy City elite whose behavior this spineless government has repeatedly failed to tackle,” said UNITE general secretary Len McCluskey.

“The living standards of millions of low- and medium-paid public service workers are being hammered in the name of reducing the deficit,” said Brendan Barber, president of the Trade Union Congress, which coordinated the strike.

Barber added that the British government has done little to make the bankers who caused the crisis that led to the deficit pay their fair share to reduce it.

The proposed pension and pay cuts are part of the government’s austerity program. Among other things, the government wants workers making 15,000 pounds (US$21,105) or less to contribute 3.2 percent more for their pension, which amounts to a cut in take-home pay.

Barber says that higher worker pension contributions won’t go toward improving the fiscal soundness of the pension fund; instead, they will be used to reduce the deficit. While the government is demanding more money from its workers, it decided not to tax banker bonuses.

“This is really just another way of making public sector workers pay for the bankers’ recession (which caused the deficit), said Phil Mason, a local leader of UNISON, another union participating in the strike.

The proposal to increase worker pension contributions comes at a time when public sector wages have been frozen for three years. “Our members are on a three-year pay freeze and people are not going to be able to afford to pay more for their pensions,” said Jane Health, a UNISON branch secretary in Staffordshire.

In addition to raising worker pension contributions, the government is also proposing that the age for drawing a full pension be increased over a period of time to 66 years old, then to 67 years old, and finally to 68 years old for those 40 years old or younger.

The government also proposes that the formula for calculating pensions be changed so that future pension payments are lower. It also wants to change the way the cost-of-living increases are measured, which will lower future cost-of-living adjustments to workers’ pensions.

Despite news reports to the contrary, public sector pensions for the most part are already quite low. “Let’s nail the lies that are peddled about public service pensions,” Barber said. “They are not gold-plated. Half of public service pensions in payment today are less than 5,600 pounds (US$6,200) a year. In local government, half of pensioners get less than 3,000 pounds (US$4,120).”

Furthermore, public sector workers agreed to changes five years ago that helped stabilize the pension fund. “(Public pensions) are not unsustainable or unaffordable. Big changes were accepted only five years ago to reduce the cost,” said Barber.

“As the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee, and even Lord Hutton in his report have shown, the costs – as a share of our national wealth – are actually set to fall over coming decades, not to increase. There is no justification either for the higher contributions demanded by the Chancellor. If you need to raise extra money what about tackling the 10 billion pounds given out each year in pensions tax relief for the richest one per cent of the population?”

Union leaders said that government austerity proposals to reduce pensions and pay coupled with the layoffs of thousands of public sector workers is part of government effort to weaken the public sector and reduce services. “Suffering and misery are the price the government wants us to pay–this is an all out attack on public services,” Serwotka said.

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