Unions claimed 1,000 people joined a strike in Peterborough yesterday, one of the largest the city has ever seen.
Public sector workers downed tools in anger at the Government’s proposals to alter their pensions.
The unions involved included the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) who between them had about 1,000 on strike.
Several hundred of those were out on the streets of Peterborough picketing their offices, while Laxton Square in the city centre was a rallying point.
Hundreds of parents were inconvenienced by the action, while driving students had their tests cancelled without any notice as the city’s test centre closed.
Union members were apologetic for the problems it raised, but laid the blame at the Government’s door.
Angus Ellis, spokesman for the Peterborough Trades Union Council, said: “It’s been a successful day. I was a bit overwhelmed by the support we received.
“I personally don’t want to go on strike, it affects the workers who lose a day’s pay and inconveniences the public. We don’t take these decisions lightly.
“But it is not our fault, we have been forced by the Government to take these steps.
“It’s all very well coming out with glib comments about talks being ongoing but it has been made clear they are not budging on the core issues.
“I hope ministers will take notice of this action and offer something new in the talks.”
The Coalition wants to increase public sector workers’ contributions to their pensions and make them work longer.
The move has been met with anger across the public sector leading up to yesterday’s action.
Action will continue with staff working to rule, not doing any work outside their hours.
Picket lines were set up across the city including outside the courts in Bridge Street, the Land Registry office in City Road, the Passport Office in Northminster, the Revenue and Customs ofﬁce in New Road, and the JobCentre Plus in Broadway.
Jen Nicol (48), PCS member, who was outside Peterborough Crown Court, said: “I’m here because I do not believe the Government should be taking money from the public sector to pay for the mistakes by the banks.”
“I feel the public sector is being used as a scapegoat. I believe the Government no longer wants the public sector to provide a service. They are less concerned with providing the service than making the cuts necessary to reduce the deficit.”
Frank Giles (60), branch secretary for the PCS at HM Revenue and Customs in Peterborough, said: “They are making us pay a lot more to get a lot less and work for much longer.”
Many workers were angry at the accusation that their pensions were too good.
Denise Speakman (55), branch secretary for PCS for the Eastern Region, said: “I think the public has a misconception our pensions are gold-plated. Believe me when you earn less than £20,000 your pension is not gold-plated. It’s going to be brass-plated from now on.”
Tony Goddard (74), is a retired lab worker for the NHS and joined a demonstration outside Peterborough City Hospital.
He said: “I’m one of the lucky ones because I’ve got a pension. But it makes me very angry when people keep telling me I have a gold-plated pension I don’t deserve after 40 years hard work for the public sector.”
The striking unions were joined by members from others who have not been balloted over action.
Peter Mitten is the branch secretary for Unison at the city hospital. He said: “We wanted to show support to the unions that have taken action. I took the day off to be here. There is a lot of pressure within Unison to take action because of the strength of feeling.”
They were joined by a group of youngsters who feel the current Government’s actions will affect their future.
Emma Donohoe (17), from Orton Goldhay, said: “Being the next generation it is important we stand up for what we believe in.
“People keep saying it’s affecting our education but one day is not going to make a difference. It is far more important to get the message across to the Government.”
But not everyone was supportive of the strike.
Iain Crighton, chairman of Peterborough Chamber of Commerce, said: “There are a lot of businesses whose productivity has been hit because parents have had to take days off on an ad hoc basis.
“Interruptions are the last thing we need when the business world is trying to get back on track.
“I think there is some sympathy for their cause at the moment and people will be reasonably tolerant of the strike.
“But there will be many looking at this from the private sector with far worse pensions and if the unions are not careful that sympathy could dry up fairly quickly.”
Cameron Todd (17) was due to take his driving test yesterday but it was cancelled without notice because the test centre had to shut.
He said: “I have to have an operation on my leg next week which will take six to eight weeks to heal so it’s going to be months before I can get another date for my exam.
“I can see both sides of this argument but I don’t think they are right to go on strike. I’ve lost lots of money because I had to pay my instructor and that won’t be refundable.”
And Stewart Jackson, MP for Peterborough, said: “It’s irresponsible of the teachers and has inconvenienced a lot of parents.
“Many people with modest incomes won’t have the pension arrangements that teachers enjoy nor the security and many will be resentful. There shouldn’t be a strike during talks.
“They should get back to work and stop disrupting kids’ education. They have to accept there will be changes in this economic climate and that they don’t have the public support.”
Shailesh Vara, MP for North West Cambridgeshire, said: “Like many people in Peterborough I am very disappointed the strikes have gone ahead and for the disruption they have caused. Innocent people are getting caught up in this because some unions seem hell-bent on strike action rather than talks.
“The simple fact is that we must change public sector pension arrangements to make them affordable for the future. Frankly, the unions do nothing for their members by striking, they should talk instead, as ministers have urged.”