UK Workers Stage Mass Protests Against Austerity Measures

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Common Dreams

UK Workers Stage Mass Protests Against Austerity Measures

Cameron promises crackdown on future strikes

(Photo: UNISON/Flickr/Creative Commons)

(Photo: UNISON/Flickr/Creative Commons)

As many as one million public sector workers on Thursday began a mass demonstration against austerity cuts in the UK.

The strike began with walkouts by an estimated 20,000 teachers. They were soon joined by protesters from a variety of unions — health workers, trash collectors, firefighters, office employees, and other civil servants — in a protest against low wages, poor working conditions, and pension changes that some public worker groups are calling punitive.

Two particularly contentious issues are the salary freezes and severe wage regulations that went into effect in recent years — particularly the 1 percent pay cap on raises instituted in 2012, which has remained in place even as inflation rates and cost of living increased by almost 20 percent, according to the Retail Price Index.

David Prentis, general secretary for Unison, said that allowing raises could actually help with the economic downturn.

"The government should look hard at the economic benefits of lifting the pay cap and ending the misery of low pay for public service workers and their families," Prentis said. "The continuing pay freeze is damaging staff morale and service quality across the public sector, and today our members in local government and schools are saying enough is enough."

However, the Department of Education called the walkouts disruptive and harmful, while the UK government downplayed the turnout and said it expected public operations to continue.

A Cabinet spokesperson said, "The vast majority of dedicated public sector workers did not vote for today's action, and early indications are that most are turning up for work as usual. We have rigorous contingency plans in place, services appear to be working well and we expect most schools and [job centers] to open their doors."

According to the Independent, the government estimated that "fewer than 90,000 members of the [Public and Commercial Services] PCS union will not be working - this is lower than previous strike action and just a fifth of the civil service workforce."

But GMB, another large trade union participating in the strike, said that the majority of schools in the UK were closed or partially closed. Picketing is planned to take place in front of council buildings, libraries, courts, museums, and offices around the UK.

"We are aware that this causes problems and disruption for parents and carers," said National Union of Teachers (NUT) general secretary Christine Bower. "However, despite months in talks with Government officials, the real issues of our dispute over pay, pensions and conditions of service have not been addressed... a teacher shortage crisis is looming."

In response to the protests, Prime Minister David Cameron promised a crackdown on future days of action, saying that the government should create laws to restrict strikes by service workers.

"I don’t think these strikes are right," Cameron announced to MPs on Wednesday. “I think the time has come for looking at setting thresholds in strike ballots... How can it possibly be right for our children’s education to be disrupted by trade unions acting in that way? It is time to legislate and it will be in the Conservative manifesto."

Representatives from the Labour party disagreed with Cameron's stance, saying the strikes were "a sign of failure."

"The way to resolve these strikes is to stop ramping up the rhetoric and sort things out," a Labour spokesperson said.

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