Article published: Thursday, December 1st 2011
Tens of thousands have marched through the city centre as 150,000 public sector workers across Greater Manchester took part in the biggest strike action of the post war era to defend pensions and the welfare state against government cuts.
They joined two million public sector workers and almost 30 unions across the country in the November 30 national “day of action” called for by the Trades Union Congress. Many who took part in the good-natured march through the city said they had never taken part in industrial action before but had been driven to it by a government which saw them as a “soft target” to pay for the financial crisis.
Roy, a radiographer picketing outside Manchester Royal Infirmary, said that as a health worker his decision to strike was “one of the hardest decisions I’ve made.” But for him the matter was “simply about fairness. We don’t feel you can take a contract and tear it up in somebody’s face without proper negotiations and then just railroad all over them.”
Pickets were held at hospitals, colleges, courts and council buildings across the city throughout the bright, chilly morning. The strike was called due to government plans to raise the retirement age for public sector workers and impose a 3.2 per cent increase in employee pension contributions, amounting to the loss of a day’s wage each month.
Roy said past negotiations between unions and the government were “clearly not sincere” and “a smokescreen from day one”. For him, the attack on pensions was “just asking a certain subgroup to pick up the deficit for somebody else…you give a man a gun he can rob a bank, you give a man a bank he can rob the world.”
Incomes have already been squeezed by a combination of a public sector pay freeze and the rising cost of living during the recession. Housing worker Sahana Syed explained the impact on her family: “Even though I’m working I’m actually worse off now than I’ve ever been”, she said. “My husband doesn’t come home from work until about 7.30pm”, she added, saying “management always think they can dump on you when they expect you to take it and not make a stand at all.”
She too had little confidence in the government’s good will. “I think he’s a joke, George Osborne, he hasn’t got a clue how the other half live. He’s in his own ivory tower, completely oblivious to how the working class live at all. He can’t relate to us, he can’t understand what we’re going through or know how hard it is to make ends meet at the moment”, she said.
At midday around 20,000 strikers and supporters armed with whistles, drums, vuvuzelas and banners marched through the city centre as shoppers looked on and office workers peered out from their windows. Most were there to take in the spectacle and snap pictures on their mobile phones, though at several points onlookers and people watching from windows above applauded as the march snaked past and over one hundred medical workers lined the route and cheered as demonstrators passed the Manchester Royal Infirmary.
Public and private workers
Some looking on from the highest office floors were less enthused, with occasional windows bearing signs on which were scrawled messages such as “why should I pay for your greedy pensions” or “what a joke you people are.”
Strikers were quick to disavow any divide between public and private sector workers however, saying the government’s policies were hurting all. “We don’t want the public themselves to get caught up in this myth that it’s the public sector against the private sector. It’s not, it’s all of us, it’s the 99 per cent of us here against the 1 per cent” said Manchester Unite branch secretary Jimmy Thornton.
Manchester Unison branch secretary Pat McDonagh labelled claims that public sector workers enjoy “gold plated pensions” as “utter nonsense” and “Tory spin”. He said: “The average pension in local government which I know from my own service is £4,200 but the average for women members in local government is only £2,800”, pointing out how “if they didn’t get a pension they would have to rely on state benefits, and that’s when the taxpayer really would pay for it.”
An attack on all services
Adult social care worker Lesley Lancelott said pensions were “just the tip of the iceberg” and viewed the cuts to pensions as part of a wider attack on all services. “I work for adult social care and Manchester’s been hit really, really hard”, she said. “For ordinary people in need of care and support it’s going to cost more, they’re going to get less, they’re going to have to wait longer to keep safe and secure in their own homes.”
She also pointed out how public sector workers, often low paid, would themselves face a loss of a day’s pay for the industrial action which many could ill afford. “My partner is on minimum wage, I work three days a week, it’s going to really cost us. It’s coming out of next month’s pay, Christmas pay, that’s really going to impact on us. This is going to cost us dearly for standing up and fighting back and defending public services.”
Unite steward Kerry Feetham explained how “this is the first time I’ve ever been on strike in my career and it is difficult and people have to make a really difficult choice about going on strike”, saying “we’re passionate people who work in the public sector to provide services like healthcare and education.”
Nevertheless, she argued it was necessary. “I don’t care what George Osborne says, this will make a difference. There’s two million people coming together and I think people realise that it is worth that one day coming out on strike.”
David Cameron was quick to label the day’s action a “damp squib”, while other ministers instead denounced the “disruption” caused by the strike. But away from the war of words in Westminster several on the pickets felt the day was a show of strength to be built on. As Lesley put it: “If this action will make no difference why is he in such a lather about it? Why are they all in such a lather about it?”
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