British local government workers go on strike

Union wants employers to raise pay 6 percent

July 18, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LONDON - Hundreds of thousands of local government workers went on strike across much of Britain yesterday, shutting schools, leaving garbage uncollected and closing libraries, museums and recreation centers in a bitter dispute over pay.

The strike, which union leaders estimated was joined by about 750,000 people, was the first such national action since the so-called Winter of Discontent in 1979, when a series of strikes paralyzed the country.

Yesterday's strike affected different parts of the country differently, but had the most impact on Northern Ireland, Wales and places such as Newcastle, Manchester and Leeds in England's north. In some cities and towns, there were no public services at all; in others, there was sporadic service.

State-run schools in Britain do not begin their summer vacation until the end of the week, and the strike, which affected the unions representing teaching assistants, cafeteria workers, janitors and other support staff, closed down about 70 percent of the schools.

Driving the countrywide strikes - which affected England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but not Scotland, which negotiates local government pay separately - is the unions' anger at their employers' proposed 3 percent pay raise, which they say should be increased to 6 percent.

Many local government workers earn less than 10,000 pounds, or $15,670, a year. The minimum wage in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is 4.10 pounds, or $6.40, an hour (the rate is 5 pounds, or $7.80, an hour in Scotland), and union leaders say that is too little.

Many of the unions staged protests and rallies. Outside the Treasury building here, 15 workers holding giant pence coins (to signify how insignificant they found the 3 percent proposal) marched alongside a giant puppet of Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer.

Jack Dromey, national organizer of the public service sector of the Transport and General Workers' Union, said that if the employers did not return to the negotiating table with a better offer, the unions would meet tomorrow to plan another round of strikes.

But the employers say that 3 percent is all they can afford in the current economic climate without cutting services or raising local taxes beyond the point of reason.

The workers' demands, they say, would actually raise the annual salary bill in most local governments by about 11 percent.

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