Health, university staff strike out at UK pension changes

30th November 2011, Comments 0 comments

Huddled against the autumn cold outside one of London's top hospitals on Wednesday, the 100-strong striking staff cheered as an ambulance driving past tooted its horn in support.

Nurses, radiologists and physiotherapists at University College Hospital were among up to two million public sector workers taking action against reforms to make them work longer and contribute more towards their pensions.

"It's very rare for health workers to go on strike, but I think this is just the beginning. We are going to see more action next year," said Mark Milligan, an operating department practitioner who assists anaesthetists in theatre.

The 42-year-old, standing among a crowd waving placards saying "Everyone deserves a decent pension" and handing out leaflets, said that no surgical operations were taking place in their department, except for emergencies.

"We're angry because people make plans, which change. We agreed a pensions package last year, and now they want to change it again," said his colleague, 47-year-old operating theatre nurse Gill, who asked not to give her surname.

Rosemary, a 31-year-old occupational therapist who works in the hospital's infectious diseases department, had a similar story, telling AFP: "I've been working for eight years and they've already changed my pension twice."

She said she had been reluctant to disrupt the care of her patients, but many of them had been supportive: "I told some of them yesterday that I wouldn't be here today, and many of them said 'go for it.'"

The public reaction to other picket lines in London has been mixed.

"We have had some people shouting 'you are greedy bastards'. I was feeling a bit dispirited," said English lecturer Matthew Beaumont, a member of the University and College Union forming pickets across the city.

But the 39-year-old was hopeful about the prospects of the strike, which for many workers has become a symbol of resistance against what they see as a wider assault by Prime Minister David Cameron's government on the public sector.

"I think it's going to be enormous, after (finance minister) George Osborne's open declaration of war against the public sector in his autumn statement yesterday. That will only reinforce the sense that it's right to be out today," he said.

Osborne set out his economic forecasts and plans to parliament on Tuesday, when he admitted growth had slowed radically and introduced new austerity measures, particularly for public sector workers.

Beaumont described as "punitive and spiteful" the announcement to cap public sector pay rises to one percent for two years from next April after the current two-year freeze ends, despite inflation running at five percent.

He said "the coordinated action today makes it political and we shouldn't be ashamed of that. It's an assault on the public services".

In north London, at a picket line outside the offices of the Camden local authority, strikers claimed that 60 percent of staff were on strike.

"We don't have a choice. This government is taking massive amounts of money from the poorest people," said 49-year-old Russel Challinor, who works in the council's social services department.

He told AFP he would lose £60 ($94, 70 euros) a month by 2014 through increased contributions to his pension and a salary freeze.

"This government is taking massive amounts of money from the poorest people. It is in favour of the rich. It won't stop the bonuses or tax the banks. They're taking away the safety net from the people who need it most," he said.

© 2011 AFP

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