30 Nov 2011

Public sector strike – historic day or damp squib?

Union leaders say up to 2 million workers across the UK have come out in support of today’s strike against pension changes. But Prime Minister David Cameron has dismissed the action as a “damp squib”.

Government and unions are offering conflicting figures as to the size of the industrial action, in a public relations battle over the impact of the strike.

In a statement to the Commons, Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude said “significantly less than a third” of civil servants are taking industrial action. Mr Maude said in the whole of the UK only 18 job centres out of over 900 are closed.

“Overnight the borders have been managed without any major problems, and are currently operating normally. Currently there are no reports of excessive queues at any port. Additionally more staff than expected have turned up to work at some ports and airports,” the statement read.

Mr Maude also criticised the mass walkout as “inappropriate, untimely and irresponsible”.

Prime Minister David Cameron also played down the impact of the strike, calling it “something of a damp squib”, saying 40 per cent of schools were open and the main London airports were working properly.

See photos and videos of the protests on our interactive map

However the government’s own figures show that over three-quarters of schools in England were either closed or partially closed by industrial action. 13 per cent were open, with a further 8 per cent unaccounted for.

When asked about the apparent discrepancies in the figures, a Downing Street spokeswoman told Channel 4 News the prime minister had included schools which were partially open with those which were fully open.

It’s frustrating for me and for my son. I’d rather he was in school. Business owner Rachael Penn

The PCS union, which is the largest civil service union, rejected Francis Maude’s estimates of the size of participation, with a spokesman telling Channel 4 News that the government is “living in a fantasy world”.

The spokesman said: “Our representatives are telling us that 80-90 per cent of our members are on strike which is more than came out for the June strike.”

Channel 4 News is collating estimates from unions, local authorities and central government as to how widespread the strikes are, as well as their impact. The TUC has estimated around 2 million of its 2.6 million members would take industrial action.

Less than a third of council workers on strike

The Local Government Association told us the average percentage of local government staff in England and Wales not in work today was 32 per cent, equating to around 670,000 staff out of a total of 2.1 million. The figure is based on estimates from 210 English and Welsh councils (56 per cent), and includes all local government staff including school staff.

The LGA said the figure includes both those on strike and those not in work because of childcare or other issues – authorities were not able to separate the figures at this point.

In Scotland, the Scottish Executive confirmed that “only 1 per cent of local authority schools across Scotland were open, with disruption also being experienced at further education colleges – 17 were closed and 24 were open with some disruption to classes.”

For the latest on how the strike is affecting the UK, go to our strikes live blog


A small number of protesters stormed an office in London’s west end. The group, believed to be from UK Uncut, targeted Panton House in Panton Street after marching down Haymarket. Most were held at bay by police but a few got inside and went onto the roof, where officers moved in to clear them.

I was told I would have to resign from my union if I didn’t strike, but I felt I owed my union. Striking teacher

Police said they were in the process of making a number of arrests. A Scotland Yard spokesman said: “At approximately 3.50pm a containment was put in place outside Panton House, Haymarket, to prevent disorder by a group of protesters outside the building.

“Some protesters have entered the building and officers are in the process of making arrests for aggravated trespass.”

Elsewhere, it was reported travellers have experienced only minor delays at airports. At the moment the strikes have not impeded travellers through border controls at Heathrow airport.

The Tyne and Wear metro service has not been operating today due to industrial action, though local bus services have been unaffected.

Protesters on Grosvenor Road Belfast

Impact on ordinary people

Elsewhere in the UK, strikes have meant no buses or trains are operating in Northern Ireland. A development coordinator at New Start Education Centre, west Belfast, an alternative education provision for 14- to 16-year-olds, told Channel 4 News: “I’m not in a union, but today’s strike is about the cuts for education as well.

“We decided to close the centre in solidarity with the unions. Also there would have been no school meals and no buses for the kids to get here. I think that’s why a lot of the schools have closed as well.”

“I’ve not seen any buses or trains today – I don’t think anyone crossed the picket line. All the transport union banners were down at the city hall.”

Rachael Penn runs her own florist and greengrocers business. Her son Taylor’s school is closed today because of the strike and so Mrs Penn had no choice but to bring him to the shop with her.

“It’s frustrating for me and for my son. I’d rather he was in school. I run my own business, I have no choice but to open up the shop. I can’t afford to take a day off.”

Mrs Penn is self-employed and does not have a pension. “I can understand teachers are angry, but I wish they didn’t have to close the school for the day.”

A teacher from the south west of England told Channel 4 News: “Technically I am on strike, but I don’t believe in it – I can’t see where the money is going to come from and I fear if it does change, people will lose their jobs.

“I was told I would have to resign from my union if I didn’t strike, but I felt I owed my union. Regardless, I am not in work today, losing at least £120, and doing marking from home.”

Earlier, the TUC’s General Secretary Brendan Barber told Channel 4 News he did not think that the strike has come at a bad time for the UK economy: “We’ve been negotiating for many months, since start of the year, in fact, so this has not come about all of a sudden,” he said.