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Schools close as thousands of public sectors workers strike over pay
Updated 10:50am Thursday 10th July 2014 in News
SCHOOLS across the region are closed today as teachers join other public sector workers for a national strike.
Members of Unison, Unite, GMB and the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) have walked out alongside colleagues in the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Fire Brigade Union (FBU).
The day of disruption has been planned to highlight growing anger over pay, conditions and public sector cuts.
Hundreds of schools in the North-East and North Yorkshire have shut for the day or face disruptions.
Services run by local authorities including libraries, leisure centres, day centres for the elderly and waste collections have also been hit.
Staff working at Government departments in the region have waledk out, with the Student Loans Company and Department for Work and Pensions offices in Darlington both affected.
Many job centres, tax offices, driving test centres and courts are either closed or offering a limited service.
Work at the Passport Office in Durham City - which has been at the centre of a national controversy over delays issuing passports - is also being disrupted.
Simon Elliott, regional secretary of the PCS union, said passport staff felt they had no choice and denied the strike would make the situation worse.
"I don't think it could get an worse," he said.
"It's because of Government policy around job cuts and office closures that these problems have occurred.
"We're faced with no alternative but to take action."
Firefighters from the FBU will strike from 10am until 7pm on Thursday as part of their ongoing dispute with the Government over pension reforms.
Union members from across the region will gather in Northumberland Road, Newcastle, at 11am today for a march and rally.
Beth Farhat, regional secretary of the Northern TUC said: “Under this government the North-East has lost 49,000 public sector jobs and the region’s public services are all the weaker for it. What’s worse is that we’re not even halfway through the Chancellor’s planned cuts.
"TUC analysis shows the average public sector worker is now on average £2,245 worse off in real terms since the last election and that’s a big loss in spending power to a region like ours.
“The government is destroying our public services while handing massive tax cuts to the richest and allowing the banks who caused this crisis to continue dishing out bonuses as usual. Collecting the taxes avoided by the wealthy and big corporations should be more of a priority rather than hammering the wages of school cooks, teachers and other public service workers.”
Nationally, more than a million people were taking part in the one-day walkout as part of bitter disputes over pay, pensions, jobs and spending cuts.
The action has been hailed as the biggest strike over pay to hit the Government since it came to power in 2010.
Home helps, lollipop men and women, refuse collectors, librarians, dinner ladies, parks attendants, council road safety officers, caretakers and cleaners are among those striking alongside teachers, firefighters, civil servants and transport workers.
Hundreds of administrative workers at Transport for London were also on strike in a row over pay and pensions.
Picket lines were mounted outside courts, council offices, jobcentres, fire stations and Parliament in outpourings of anger over the coalition's public sector policies.
Fire chiefs urged people to take extra care because of the walkout by members of the Fire Brigades Union in Wales and England between 10am and 7pm - the 15th round of industrial action in a long-running row over pensions and retirement age.
And hundreds of thousands of children were expected to be affected as schools tried to remain open.
More than 200,000 members of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) were expected to take part in the walkout.
The union's general secretary, Christine Blower, said: "We obviously think the strike will go very well, there will be many thousands of public sector workers out and that will affect a lot of schools.
"I've been getting messages from people saying that they are more determined now than they were in the past to take action."
Ms Blower insisted that industrial action is just one part of their "stand up for education" campaign, which also includes informing and working with parents and lobbying politicians.
"There are a thousand teachers in every constituency and politicians need to start listening and begin to put pressure on the Government themselves," she said.
The NUT's action, which focuses on three issues - pay, pensions and working conditions - has been condemned by the Department for Education (DfE), which said that it will hold back pupils' education.
"There is no justification for further strikes," a DfE spokeswoman said. "The unions asked for talks, we agreed to their request and talks are ongoing.
"The Secretary of State joined talks with the unions on June 25. All ministers meet with the unions frequently and will continue to do so. These strikes will only disrupt parents' lives, hold back children's education and damage the reputation of the profession."
Members of Unison staged a demonstration outside Parliament, holding up giant "slices of bread" to symbolise that workers want more than a 1% slice of the pay bill.
General secretary Dave 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.
"By starving local councils of the finance they need to deliver vital public services and pay staff a fair wage, the Government is missing an opportunity to not only inject money into the economy but to create much-needed full-time jobs."
Mick Cash, acting general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, warned of wildcat strikes if changes are made to balloting laws.
"If you remove the right to strike legally or make it almost impossible, then workers will, understandably, take matters into their own hands.
"If a majority of workers in a democratic, secret ballot decide to take action as last resort over their safety or jobs but the government or a judge says you can't do that because you've not reached a threshold or because this is an essential service, it is obvious how workers with a proud militant tradition will react.
"They will eventually take their own action and you will see highly disruptive wildcat action called at very short or no notice."
The TUC has said public sector workers are on average more than £2,000 worse off under the Government, while half a million council employees earn less than the living wage.
Unison said ending the cap on public sector pay would create thousands of jobs and pump millions of pounds into the economy.
Every 1% increase in public sector pay would generate between £710 million and £820 million for the Government in increased income tax and National Insurance contributions as well as reduced spending on benefits and welfare, said the union.
A Cabinet Office spokesman 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.
"In the civil service we estimate that fewer than 90,000 members of the PCS union will not be working - this is lower than previous strike action, and just a fifth of the civil service workforce "It is disappointing that, once again, some union leaders have pushed for strike action that will achieve nothing and benefit no one. Union leaders have relied on mandates for action that lack authority - the National Union of Teachers ballot was run nearly two years ago, while other ballots had extremely low turnouts."
The strike has sparked another pledge by the Prime Minister to change employment laws so that a certain number of people have to take part in a ballot, otherwise industrial action would be illegal.
Business leaders and leading Conservatives have been pressing for a new law, setting out a 50% threshold in ballots.
David Cameron insisted in the Commons that the "time had come" to legislate for setting thresholds and pledged to include this in the Conservative manifesto ahead of next year's general election.