By Daphne Liddle
HUNDREDS of thousands of public sector workers went on strike last Thursday, 10th July in protest at low pay, pension cuts and job cuts. Estimates of the total number taking part range from one to two million strikers, angry at sharply declining living standards as the greedy one per cent of top capitalists are enjoying unprecedented rises in their income.
Schools, libraries and council offices closed throughout the country; bins went uncollected, streets went unswept and driving tests were postponed. This was the biggest national strike since November 2011 – and that was the biggest since the General Strike of 1926.
And hundreds and thousands of workers took to the streets of towns and cities throughout the country in marches and rallies to drive home the message of the strike.
In London around 15,000 assembled outside the BBC headquarters in Portland Place – to ensure the biased BBC could not pretend it did not notice the event, to march to a rally in Trafalgar Square.
The unions PCS, GMB, FBU, Unite, Unison and many others were there in force but the biggest group by far were the members of the National Union of Teachers. There were dozens of bright banners, giant balloons and thousands of placards. The mood was upbeat in spite of the rain but there was no mistaking the real hatred of the teachers for Education Secretary Michael Gove – who has since lost his job.
Firefighters were also angry at their very long-running fight to defend their pensions and right to retire at 55. The Government wants to force them to work until 60 in a job that depends on a high standard of fitness and firefighters are tested regularly on this. If the Government has its way those who fail the test between 55 and 60 will lose their pensions.
Charles Brown, a 52-year-old firefighter from London, said: "They want us to work longer, pay more in and get less out. We have tried to have negotiations with the Government but they are not listening, so we have no option but to strike."
The Fire Brigades Union is staging strikes every day this week as part of that dispute.
Many strikers and speakers were outraged at plans by the Government to regard strike ballots as invalid unless more than 50 per cent of those who could vote supported the strike.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady criticised Tory plans raise the threshold for strikes saying: “Rather than get round the table, ministers are threatening a change in the law that would make legal strikes close to impossible.
"Instead of imposing a ballot threshold that not a single MP met in the last election, politicians should stop ignoring sensible proposals to increase secret ballot turnouts at the workplace and online."
Union leaders criticised the Labour Party for not backing the strike. Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, said: "It is time for Labour to make up its mind. Public service workers are people who should be Labour's natural supporters and they deserve Labour's unashamed backing in return."
A survey last week showed widespread public support for the strikes and the aims of the strikers.
Of those who gave a view, 59 per cent think that the Government is unfairly targeting public sector workers on pay with almost the same again (58 per cent) saying that council workers deserve an extra £1 per hour on their wages; even among 2010 Conservative voters, support for a pay rise stands at 52 per cent.
Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said: “This Government’s ceaseless attacks on our public service workers are misguided and find no favour with the public. They can see through this bullying for what it is – an attempt to turn friends and neighbours against the good people who care for their kids, keep their streets clean and run our valued community services, and they are not buying it.
“The public has no appetite for the government’s belittling of public sector workers, and certainly none whatsoever for the Tories’ threat to remove the right to strike action.”
Speakers at the rally in Trafalgar Square spoke of plans for further general strikes – one in October and another in the New Year in the run-up to the general election.