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Historic anti-austerity strikes in the UK

Translated Thursday 1 December 2011, by Harry Cross and reviewed by Harry Cross

British public sector workers went on strike Wednesday in order to protest against the attempts of David Cameron’s government to enforce draconian austerity measures. Unions were counting on unprecedented levels of mobilisation.

"I feel angry that I’m paying a 50 percent increase in pension contributions and I feel angry that I’m going to have to work longer and at the end of it get less," said Russ Aitken, a Liverpool police officer. “Hopefully the government will change its position. The situation was made by the government and the bankers and the people who are asked to pay the price are public sector workers," he added.

Thirty union centres called for this social mobilisation of a level unseen since the 1978-1979 Winter of Discontent, under the Labour government of James Callaghan, which saw come to power the Conservative Margaret Thatcher. Some unions have called for action for the first time in 114 years of existence.

More than a thousand protests have been planned across the country and unions hope that around 2,000,000 people will take part in the strike action, many more than in the preceding strike organised in June for the same reasons. The government wishes to raise retirement age in the public sector to 66 in 2020 – as opposed to 60, as it is currently – and to increase taxation, all as part of its plan for austerity.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne to prolong austerity

Negotiations underway for several months have currently stalled. Unions oppose a change in retirement schemes that aims to raise taxes and cut pensions. On Tuesday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced in a regular report on the budget that growth in public sector salaries, frozen until 2012, will be fixed at 1% from 2013. Equally, the reform of public sector pensions will lead to an increase of 3.2% in the average pension contributions paid by civil servants.

“The government has turned its back on workers,” according to unions

Meanwhile, the Labour opposition accused the government of treating the Eurozone as a scapegoat for the bad economic performance of the country, which is actually due to overly rigorous austerity measures creating a “boomerang effect” on growth and employment. Brendon Barber, General Secretary of the United Kingdom Trade Union Congress, a confederation of roughly 60 unions, judged that what is being asked is not for workers to consent to “temporary sacrifices”, but to accept “a large and permanent reduction” of their living standards. “It’s not been a surprise that the government has turned its back on workers,” he commented, whilst congratulating a unity of workers “without precedence.”

Large protests were planned for London, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Brighton, Newcastle and other large cities.

Bernard Thibault has expressed his support of the British workers:
“In the name of the CGT [the General Confederation of French Workers] I extend to you our solidarity and our strongest hopes on the occasion of your day of action,” wrote the leader of the CGT in a letter to Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC. “Working more, for longer, for less pay: these are the responses that European government are using to tackle the crisis. The citizens of our countries are paying a bill that they are not responsible for. It is intolerable!” he added.

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