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30 March 2006 Edition

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Strike: A million protest at Government pension plans

BY Justin Moran

Huge work stoppage

Well over a million public sector workers have walked off the job this week across England, Scotland, Wales and in the Six Counties in what some union leaders have said is the biggest stoppage since the general strike of 1926.

Unions were forced into industrial action following attempts by the British government to introduce a two-tiered public sector pension system. The government intends to abolish the so-called 'Rule of 85', which allows employees to retire on a full pension at the age of 60, provided their age and years of service add up to 85.

Some public servants, like teachers and doctors, have already been told they will be exempt from the proposed reforms, which will apply to all new staff. But workers employed by Councils and the Housing Executive as well as school support staff and public transport workers will be effected.

Around 50,000 public sector workers took part in the one-day strike in the North. Pickets were held in Armagh city, Ballymena, Derry city, Enniskillen, Newry and Omagh while 2,000 workers took part in a rally in Belfast. All libraries across the Six were closed and pickets shut down Council offices, Education and Library Board premises, the Housing Executive, Schools and a range of other public bodies as well as shutting down the transport system.

Dave Prentis, General Secretary of Unison, the biggest public sector union, said the action had been a great success: "More than one million workers caught the employers on the hop. They never expected 17,500 schools, the majority of council offices, refuse depots, libraries, leisure centres, trains, buses, tunnels and ferries across the country to shut down."

Belfast rally

NIPSA General Secretary John Corey, addressing the Belfast rally, was delighted at the success of the strike, and warned that further industrial action would be taken if necessary. "People who serve the public all their lives, for low wages with little thanks most of the time, and only a modest pension paid for all throughout their working lives deserve to have that pension protected," he said.

"We cannot rule out further days of strike action, but we hope the Government will respond by returning to serious negotiations over the fundamental right of public sector workers."

Further action seems inevitable despite agreement from the British Government to enter into talks. Local elections in Britain are set for the 4 May and reports indicate the unions are planning regional mobilisations towards the end of April and a possible 48-hour general strike on 3 and 4 May, which would massively disrupt polling.

Striking workers in the Six Counties received the full support of Sinn Féin. "Trade Unions across the North can be assured that Sinn Féin fully supports the actions and arguments that they have with regards to their pensions," said North Antrim MLA Philip McGuigan. "It is quite clear that the British Government must now move to alleviate this problem and issue the workers with their pension entitlements.

"They must realise that this is an equality issue and must be dealt with immediately. Over 50,000 of these workers provide us with essential services on a daily basis therefore they should be on a par with non public sector employees."

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