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Trade Unions

A few of the 25,000 London marchers.  Photo by Michael Pooler.

On Wednesday more than two million public sector workers brought public services to a standstill in the largest single strike that the country has seen since 1926.

Workers including teachers, physiotherapists, nurses, librarians, and weather forecasters took to picket lines and demonstrations in a confrontation with the government over cuts to pensions. The proposals would see workers pay more but receive less with the retirement age raised, as the government finds ways to lower the structural deficit.

The effects were widely felt: two thirds of schools were closed, 6,000 non-urgent hospital operations cancelled, bins left uncollected and transport disrupted. Hundreds of regional marches and rallies were held up and down the country with large turnouts.

Outside the gates of Lewisham Hospital in London, drivers beeped their horns in support while many passers-by and patients stopped to wish strikers well.

Pyschologist Jo McKay, 58, said the strikes are about protecting the quality of public services: ‘Many jobs in the NHS involve physically demanding work. What the government forgets is the long-term implications of being in front-line jobs. Would you really want a 68-year-old, who may be older than you, loading you into an ambulance when you've had a heart attack?’

At the 25,000-strong London march there was a lively and buoyant mood. Notably present were many who will not be directly affected by the reforms.

Helen LeBeady of Lambeth Pensioners Action Group was out ‘as a former worker showing solidarity.’

‘We support fair pensions for all,’ she says. ‘There are already many pensioners suffering poverty and we don't want that for the generation to come’.

Talil, a 16-year-old college student, was marching with his friends. He said: ‘We want to have jobs in the public service when we are older – as nurses, radiographers, in local government – so we are here to support its future.’

In the run-up to and aftermath of the event a media war was launched by the government to discredit strikers, repeating the slogan that ‘we are in all this together’ and painting public sector workers as greedy.

But contrary to the education minister’s accusation that the strikers were ‘itching for a fight’, for many workers it was their first time taking industrial action. Professions such as head teachers, chiropodists and podiatrists had never before voted to strike, indicating their reluctance to take strike action as a last resort due to what many see as government intransigence.

Government claims that the unions’ intent was to force ‘mothers to give up a day's work or pay for expensive childcare’ were rubbished by Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), who told the London rally that N30 represented the ‘largest ever strike of women’ in the country.

While the official reason of the dispute is pensions, the strikes are undeniably political in character. Against the broader context of deep cuts to public services, the strikes sound a note of challenge to the government's austerity drive to plug public finances – a contest on political terrain against the imposition of lowered living standards.

In the words of Luke Evans, a 27-year-old research assistant at Goldsmiths College, the strikes ‘can act as a lightning rod for all the general discontent against the government and the unions can be a framework for popular action.’

N30 also marked the first major mass outing of trade unions since the historic industrial defeats of the miners and print workers in the 1980s, which, coupled with draconian legislation, effectively ended the combative role of trade unions as a bulwark against capital. But now a new confidence seems to be flowing, matched by a strong grass-roots support and resonating in the fiery language of union leaders.

Prime Minister David Cameron dismissed strikers as ‘irresponsible’ and their action as ineffective. But whether cast as a ‘damp squib’ or lions flexing their claws, they have undoubtedly made a mark on the political landscape, with some polls indicating a majority public support – although how long this can continue when other workers are negatively affected remains to be seen.

N30 has ratcheted up the tension between a government intent on forcing through austerity measures and a workforce unwilling to pay for a crisis it feels it did not cause. With another recession on the horizon, and those on low incomes targeted by the chancellor's budget statement this week, the battle lines are drawn: expect to see more in the coming months.

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