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U.K. Civil Servants Strike, Shutting 200 Departments

by Open-Publishing - Thursday 1 February 2007

Trade unions Public services Strikes UK

By Caroline Alexander

Jan. 31 (Bloomberg) — U.K. civil servants began a 24-hour strike today, with 200,000 people protesting against job cuts, pay awards and the running of public services, in what may be the biggest walkout by government workers in almost 26 years.

Those on strike today aren't faceless bureaucrats or high-flying mandarins but people at the heart of public services providing the everyday things we take for granted,'' Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, said in an e-mailed statement.If the government is to avoid the prospect of more strikes and disruption then they need to give assurances.’’

The strike, backed by PCS members in a Jan. 23 vote, affects more than 200 government departments and agencies and may delay as many as 500,000 self-assessment tax returns due today, the annual deadline.

The union is protesting plans to cut a fifth of the civil service by 2008, pay increases below the inflation rate of 3 percent and the involvement of private companies in public services. Union leaders have said the stoppage may exceed the last national strike by civil servants in November 2004. Then, 200,000 workers staged a one-day strike, the biggest since 1981 when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister.

Today’s action involves more than a third of the civil service, which employed 554,000 people in the third quarter of 2006, according to the National Statistics office. Total employment in the public sector, including schools and hospitals, was 5.9 million.

Museums Closed

Picket lines, demonstrations and rallies are taking place in towns and cities across the U.K. including London, Manchester, Newcastle and Leeds as well as at ports including Dover and Heathrow airport, according to the PCS.

The stoppage closed museums, galleries, job centers, tax offices and driving-test centers. There may also be delays passing through immigration and little or no customs checks at ports and airports.

The union, the sixth-largest in the U.K. with about 325,000 members, said a two-week overtime ban will follow today’s walkout and there could be further stoppages in the run-up to local elections on May 5.

Some union members who defied the strike order said that while they supported industrial action in the past, on this occasion negotiations should have been given more time.

Spending Cuts

Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, under pressure to trim spending after boosting investment in schools and hospitals, plans to save around 21.5 billion pounds ($43 billion) a year by cutting 84,000 jobs by March 2008.

As of November, the government had cut 54,963 positions and moved 10,574 jobs out of London provincial centers where costs are lower, according to the Treasury.

The union organized a battle bus'' touring picket lines at the Passport Office, the British Library, the Royal Courts of Justice, the Treasury, the Office for National Statistics, the Department for Education and Skills and the National Gallery between 8 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. in London. Cabinet Office minister Pat McFadden said there wasabsolutely no need’’ for the stoppage, stressing that only one union had chosen to strike.

``At a time when the government is increasing investment in public services no organization, including the civil service, can be immune from the need for change, both to ensure value for money for the public and to adapt to new Technology,’’ McFadden said in an e-mailed statement.

In 2005, civil servants called off a planned strike after the government dropped proposals to raise the retirement age for existing members of the civil-service pension plan to 65 from 60. The action, which was supported by several unions, would have included an estimated 1.5 million workers.

To contact the reporters on this story: Caroline Alexander in London at calexander1@bloomberg.net
Last Updated: January 31, 2007 06:51 EST