THOUSANDS of furious workers are staging a mass walkout today to fight Government plans to savage their pensions.
The strikes by around 750,000 teachers and civil servants will be the biggest day of industrial action since Margaret Thatcher was PM in the 1980s.
Hard-pressed staff have already been hit by savage Coalition cutbacks and are incensed over proposals to hammer their pensions.
Thousands of schools in England and Wales will be closed today while ports and airports will be disrupted. Driving centres, courts, job centres and even Downing Street will also be affected.
Last night Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said the Government was morally responsible for the strikes because it was trying to steamroller through unfair changes to pensions and had failed to negotiate. She added: “Deciding to strike is not a decision we take lightly. This is the first time ATL members will be involved in a national strike in our 127 years.
“We regret any inconvenience caused to parents but a one-day strike will have significantly less impact on children’s education than the damage done by making education an unattractive career.
“If the Government’s changes go ahead we risk losing the best graduates to teaching, losing great teachers, lecturers and heads, and causing a recruitment crisis finding school and college heads. We’ve deliberately chosen June 30 to avoid exams and the start of school trips and events.
“We hope parents and the community can understand why we’re taking action as a last resort.”
Labour accused ministers of causing the industrial action by not taking part in last-minute talks.
Shadow Education Secretary Andy Burnham said: “When Labour was in government we negotiated through the night to avoid fire strikes and worked hard to stop industrial action on public sector pensions. The Tory-led Government has badly mishandled the whole process. Ministers and unions need to put children’s education first and focus on reaching an agreement.”
The Coalition was also accused of having a hidden agenda to undermine public sector pensions – paving the way for privatising Government services.
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the civil servants’ Public and Commercial Services Union, told the Mirror the rush to privatise public services would turn from “a stream into a flood”.
He added he was confident of the “best support we’ve ever had” for a strike, saying: “Hard-pressed public sector workers are paying a huge price, while the Tories’ friends in the City who caused this crisis are back enjoying their bonuses. This is part of a hidden agenda to undermine pensions and pick off massive parts of the public sector and hand them to the City.”
Mr Serwotka said key Government services in the justice department and benefits system, as well as the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency were prime targets for privatisation.
Last night the Government denied it had a hidden agenda on pensions. It followed David Cameron launching another attack on the strikes.
Speaking at Prime Minister’s questions he said: “I don’t believe there is any case for industrial action tomorrow, not least because talks are still ongoing. It is only a minority of unions who have taken the decision to go ahead and strike.
“What I want to see is as many mums and dads as possible able to take their children to school.”
But his call fell flat when Tory-run Surrey county council – which includes the Westminster seat of Education Secretary Michael Gove – said the use of volunteers to keep schools open was “best avoided”.
Staff are walking out over plans to make teachers and civil servants pay more for pensions, get less on retirement and work longer. Those in their 30s won’t be eligible to retire until 68.
Rallies are being held around the country and the leaders of the four unions involved – including the National Union of Teachers and the University and College Union – will attend a march in Central London.
Labour leader Ed Miliband said yesterday that he expected his party’s MPs to cross picket lines outside Parliament.
The British Chambers of Commerce said disruption caused by the 24-hour walkout will lead to many parents having to take the day off work to look after their children – resulting in them losing pay and output being reduced.
Mike Cherry, policy chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, said: “The recovery remains in a fragile state and this action will have a wider impact on the economy as businesses lose productivity – something the economy cannot afford.”
Airports have warned travellers to expect disruption on arrival into the UK as immigration and customs officers join the walkout.
The Government could also be facing a national rail strike after the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers union yesterday vowed to resist an “all-out assault” on jobs, pay, safety and services.
Members at their annual conference in Fort William said the recent McNulty review of the railways could lead to huge job cuts, increased fares and threats to rural lines.
RMT general secretary Bob Crow said if the Government insisted on pushing ahead with the plans then union members would be balloted over industrial action.
WHAT'S BEING HIT TODAY
The Driving Standards Agency urged all driving test candidates booked to take a test to attend as usual, saying they will be given a new date within 10 days if there is a cancellation because of the strike.
Tax offices across the country are set to be hit by walkouts by 59,000 staff, which the PCS said will disrupt tax processing and other services. HMRC said it planned to keep all helplines open.
At least 8,000 of the 24,000 schools in England and Wales closed or seriously affected by striking members of the National Union of Teachers, Association of Teachers and Lecturers and University and College Union.
Around 85% of schools, 350 colleges and 75 universities face disruption.
Immigration and customs staff will strike, leading to the prospect of lengthy queues and delays for travellers.
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Last night the UK border Agency changed its earlier advice not to travel. it said people should expect delays. Managers are being redeployed to help.
Around 5,000 training officers and administrative workers could strike.
Members of the Prison officers Association will stage protest meetings in a show of support to the teachers and civil servants. The Ministry of Justice said contingency plans were in place.
SECURiTY staff in the Houses of Parliament will be on strike.
Some left-wing MPs may refuse to cross any picket lines set up outside. Some Downing Street staff are also walking out. Whitehall workers will be able to take their children in if their schools are hit.
About 10,000 court staff as well as those who transport prisoners are involved in the action, threatening cancellation of cases or delays to trials.
A courts spokesman said urgent family cases and out-of-hours services would be given priority.
The pcs said jobcentres across the UK will close or only offer limited services as 80,000 strike, while people ringing call centres for advice could be met by recorded messages.
A total of 1,139 Maritime and Coastguard Agency staff belong to the PCS union but it is not clear how widespread any disruption will be. Lifeboat and helicopter operations will be unaffected.
WHY I'M STRIKING
Niamh Sweeney, 37, lecturer in health and social care, Cambridge. ATL union rep.
I love teaching. It's a challenge but my students are great and seeing that lightbulb moment is the reason why we do it.
But now, the conditions are such that we have to make a stand. I earn £28,000 per year and pay £145 into my pension each month. The proposed increases would take that to over £200, and I just can't afford that, not with everything else going up like utilities and food. At the same time my pay increase this year will be 0.02%.
I can understand parents' frustrations that they'll have to find someone to look after their children. But teachers aren't doing this lightly.
WHY I'M STRIKING
James Rodgers, 28, works for the Insolvency Service in Manchester. PCS union rep.
I'm going on strike because the Government plan to change public sector pensions, bringing them from a final salary scheme to an average salary scheme as well as increasing the payments you have to make. I'll be paying an extra £44 per month and I'll have to work for three years longer.
I entered into a contract with my employer in good faith which they're now seeking to change. I feel betrayed. I pay £600 per month rent in a shared flat, and after everything else I have £100 per week left which is all accounted for with food, travel and things like that. The pension rise would leave me unable to manage.
WHY I'M STRIKING
Alex Leach, 30, CPS administrative case worker based in Hull. PCS union rep.
I have a love for public services but this pension raid is the straw that has broken the camel's back. We're already on a pay freeze - now the Government want us to work longer, pay in more and receive less.
It's time to stand up and say enough is enough.
Paying an extra £50 odd a month will be a big burden.
Our pension is one of the few benefits we have, but let's be clear - it's not a gold plated pension - we're not Fatcats.
My pension will pay me about £5,000 a year when I retire.
The Government needs to look at this again and find an alternative.
WHY I'M NOT STRIKING
Brian Cookson, 60, a teacher in Lichfield, Staff is an NASUWT union rep
We believe it is vital to exhaust all avenues with the Government before considering any sort of strike action. I would be furious if the Government do push through all of its proposals, but hope it can be resolved around the table.
The current situation makes me very unhappy.
I want the unions to exhaust every possibility. We have got a case to make and we want to do it in the right way. The problem with the strike is that we do not have all of the unions working together and that in itself creates problems.
I regret the situation that has arisen, it's very difficult. I will be working as usual.