Public services at a standstill as strikes hit Leicestershire
A teachers' union leader warned strike action could escalate as thousands took to the streets yesterday to protest against public sector pension changes.
Teachers and civil servants staged a 24-hour strike leading to the full or partial closure of almost 200 schools in the city and county, as well as courts, job centres, tax offices and driving test centres.
Ian Leaver, assistant secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "The Government hasn't yet taken any notice of what we're saying, but we expect other public service unions to get involved.
"I can see strike action escalating because the Government isn't prepared to shift at all."
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Other unions, including the UK's biggest public sector union, Unison, have warned they could also take industrial action, while transport union, the RMT, has already voted in favour of a series of separate strikes.
The National Association of Headteachers is balloting members this autumn and further action by the NUT is under consideration.
Yesterday, picket lines formed outside schools, colleges, job centres and courts.
Regent College teacher Dawn Johnson, 50, was among those on the picket line outside the city centre school.
She said: "These aren't gold-plated pensions we're trying to protect – we make substantial contributions to them and the Government is saying it can't afford to give us back what we paid in.
"We want dignity in old age and fair pensions for all. A decent pension will give us a living wage in retirement, otherwise we'll be even more of a burden on the taxpayer."
Union members gathered in Leicester city centre before heading up New Walk to Victoria Park for a mass rally at noon.
Officials from the NUT, who organised the event, estimated up to 800 were there at its height.
They included members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), and the University and Colleges Union.
NUT member Michelle Green 38, a teacher at Wolsey House Primary in Beaumont Leys, who was at the rally, said: "I can't afford to make another £100 contribution to my pension and I'm sure new graduates who join the profession can't either.
"It's going to put a lot of young people off becoming teachers."
Colleague Helen Miskelly, 33, said: "It takes a lot of energy to be a teacher, it's just not appropriate to say you have to carry on teaching until you're 67 or 68."
ATL member Cheryl Teal, 39, a teacher at the independent Leicester High School for Girls, said she had thought long and hard about strike action but felt so strongly about the issue.
"I joined the ATL because it wasn't militant, but as a single mother these changes are going to affect me. They're a slap in the face to the hard work and professionalism we bring to our job."
Members of the public and commercial services union PCS were also manning picket lines outside the tax office, at Saxon House, in Causeway Lane, and HM Revenue and Customs offices, at City Gate House, St Margaret's Way, and Attenborough House, in Charles Street, Leicester.
Trade unionist Tim Neal, 50, said: "Most of our 700 PCS members at the tax office came out with us. My contract of employment is basically being ripped up, which is going to cost me about £50,000 over my lifetime."
Martin Page, PCS branch secretary for HM Revenue and Customs in Leicester, was astonished by the turnout.
He said: "Out of all 896 people working in Leicester, only 53 people turned up for work."
About 180 office staff and workshop instructors mounted a picket line outside Gartree Prison near Market Harborough.
PCS representative at the prison John Stevens said: "I joined the service 34 years ago and joined the compulsory pension scheme. The wages were lower than the private sector, but we were promised a good pension on retirement. Why should the Government be allowed to rip up the contract I have honoured throughout my career?"
Businesses across the county were also affected by the strike action.
Martin Traynor, chief executive of Leicestershire's Chamber of Commerce said: "I know many businesses have told me people have had to take the day off work to look after their children, and for small businesses, that's a huge inconvenience."
Downing Street said yesterday there had been "minimal impact" on the public from the strike action.
A spokesman said: "The Prime Minister thinks these strikes are premature."
Education Secretary Michael Gove said he was "disappointed'' at strike action by teachers but he remains confident the dispute over pensions can be resolved.
He said: "I understand there are really strong feelings about pensions and we absolutely want to ensure that everyone in the public, especially teachers, have decent pensions. But I just don't think it's a good idea to have gone out on strike."
Reports by Fiona Dryden, Ian Burbidge, Aaron Frank, David Sharman, David Owen, Shirley Elsby, Alan Thompson and Tim Healy.