May/June Vol 6, No. 3
England: Ministers Seek Urgent Talks after a Million Workers Join Walkout
By David Hencke, Hugh Muir and Emily Ashton
Ministers will today hold urgent talks with the trade union leaders responsible for yesterday’s mass walkout by up to a million public sector workers, amid fears of more industrial action timed to devastate the local elections on May 4.
Phil Woolas, the local government minister, made conciliatory noises to the strikers last night after they staged what the unions claimed to be the biggest mass show of industrial muscle since the 1926 general strike, paralyzing schools, libraries, leisure centers and transport networks across the country.
Though the council employers claimed observance had been patchy and the overall number of strikers lower than had been expected, union officials claimed some areas, particularly in the North and Scotland, had been affected to the point of “complete meltdown.”
In the aftermath, the government is promising to look at new ways of maintaining the right of some existing workers to retire at 60 when in October ministers scrap the so-called “rule of 85 years,” which allows council employees to retire on full pension at 60, provided their age and years of service add up to 85.
Ministers are privately furious at the scale of yesterday’s disruption and are alarmed about the prospect of further walkouts that could disrupt voting during next month’s crucial local elections.
The Guardian understands that April 25, 26 and 27 have been earmarked for three days of regional action in different parts of the country, and this will be followed by a 48-hour stoppage on May 3 and 4. One union, Amicus, has jumped the gun on the second strike by notifying employers in Lancashire about the proposed walkout. The industrial action committee had hoped to keep this secret until seven days before the local election day.
Dave Prentis, leader 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 centers, trains, buses, tunnels and ferries across the country to shut down.”
The impact was felt across the country as public transport workers refused to drive buses, trains and ferries. The biggest bus companies in Cardiff and Edinburgh stopped operating, as did all public transport in Newcastle, where 800 workers and their supporters marched through the city. All bus and rail services were at a standstill in Northern Ireland, while the Mersey tunnels in Liverpool were shut.
Leeds Bradford airport’s runway was closed for two hours at lunchtime, and the shutters stayed down all day at Glasgow’s underground stations. Motorists in Hull and Southampton crossed the Humber bridge and Itchen toll bridge for free because there were no workers to collect fees, and disruption to ferries meant the Isle of Wight was in effect cut off. In London and the south-east, more than half a million children were affected by the closure of hundreds of schools. The Thames Barrier and Tower Bridge were also hit.
The chancellor, Gordon Brown, and the former U.S. president Bill Clinton were drawn into the controversy as they were forced to cross picket lines at London’s Guildhall. Union officials criticized Mr. Brown, who failed to acknowledge the strikers, but there were kinder words for Mr. Clinton. As he entered the building for an environmental conference he asked the strikers: “Are you people all right?”
In Wales, most council buildings were closed as up to 80,000 union members stayed away. Cross-border train services between Belfast and Dublin were also hit.
In Birmingham 26 libraries, three leisure centers and 21 neighborhood offices were closed and there was no refuse collection or street cleaning in parts of the city.
Up to 1,000 Unison members working as support staff at Avon and Somerset constabulary are also believed to have joined the walkout in Bristol. One primary school in Halifax was able to avoid disruption, but only by making a deal to spend the day teaching about the importance of strikes and protest.
The action was organized by 11 unions coordinated by Unison.
—The Guardian, March 29, 2006