Major public sector strike in Britain over pay and cuts

AFP
Striking public sector workers march in protest through central London on May 10, 2012
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London (AFP) - A major public sector strike took place in Britain on Thursday, with hundreds of thousands of workers rallying against the government's austerity-driven spending cuts and pay restraint measures.

The strike involves a wide range of workers from teachers and civil servants to street sweepers and park attendants.

Rallies were held in cities around Britain, including at London's Trafalgar Square, while picket lines were set up at public buildings including fire stations and local government offices.

A fifth of schools were closed along with libraries, museums and even driving test centres.

Government estimates put the number of people on strike at under half a million.

One of the largest trade unions, UNISON, which first called the strike, said they thought hundreds of thousands of their members had withdrawn their labour.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) did not have a figure for those taking action but said that just over one million public sector workers had been balloted.

As part of a push to balance the public finances, Prime Minister David Cameron's coalition government froze public sector salaries after taking power in 2010 for two years and has since limited pay rises to one percent a year.

Unions say this means that salaries cannot keep up with rising living costs and that now "enough is enough".

"This is why today's strikers deserve public support," said TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady.

"They are saying that ordinary workers should not be locked out of the recovery, and that we should all get a fair share as the economy grows again."

- Cameron attacks low ballot turnout -

Britain's economy emerged from recession in 2009 following a downturn rooted in the global financial crisis and has since been gaining strength.

"We went through a deep, deep recession, we had a huge budget deficit and we needed pay restraint," Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude told BBC radio.

"Public sector pay has increased by more than in the private sector since the recession… if we had raised pay more, there would have been more jobs lost."

A spokesman for the Cabinet Office ministry said under a fifth of civil servants -- fewer than 80,000 -- were on strike, but did not have a figure for the wider public sector.

"Most public sector workers have reported for work today and well-rehearsed contingency plans are ensuring that nearly all key public services are being delivered as usual," he said.

A Department for Education spokesman added: "Thanks to the dedication of many teachers and staff who turned up for work, just 21% of schools were closed today."

Alex Kenny, an executive member of the National Union for Teachers, was on the rally in London, which began with around 1,500 people.

"They're pretending that it's OK for public sector workers doing vital jobs to have a nought percent pay rise, while bankers get bonuses far in excess of that," he told AFP.

Cameron has attacked the low turnout in the union ballots which led to the strikes and vowed to introduce legislation to ensure a minimum number of people take part in a ballot for it to be legal.

A TUC spokeswoman said the federation accepted that turnout in some ballots "wasn't particularly high", but said the government was doing nothing to raise participation, such as allowing secure voting via smartphone.

Instead "they seem interested in making it harder", she told AFP.

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