25 March 2006

One-day strike set to cripple province

Belfast Telegraph

50,000 take action in fight for pensions

By Marie Foy
24 March 2006

Public services across Northern Ireland are set to grind to a halt next Tuesday as up to 50,000 workers are expected to go on a one-day strike to protect their pensions, it was warned today.

The public sector staff - most of them low paid - are among 1.5 million employees in the UK gearing up to take industrial action.

Services which will be hit include all 26 local councils, schools and colleges, public transport and the Housing Executive.

Manual and administrative workers from cleaners, drivers, and leisure centre attendants to refuse collectors and clerks will take part.

Rallies and demonstrations will be held across the province with a parade likely through Belfast city centre and a picket at the gates of Stormont.

The protesters are angry at government plans to cut pension entitlement which unions have said is "unfair and mean-minded".

Workers have been told they cannot take their full pension rights until the age of 65 (up from 60), or accept a worse pension.

The strike is being co-ordinated by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and Tuesday's wide-ranging protests are expected to be the first of an ongoing campaign of industrial action.

Unison spokesperson Lily Kerr, said: "Members are outraged that government is treating them differently from all other public sector pension schemes.

"Health service employees, civil servants, teachers, police and fire fighters have all been granted protection on their current schemes.

"Members are asking why should those employed within local government, universities, higher education and education be treated differently.

"Every political party within Northern Ireland has backed the call for these staff to be treated fairly and equally. Those calls would seem to have fallen on deaf ears."

Patricia McKeown, ICTU chair, revealed that the average pension for men in the sector was £3,800 per year, and £1,600 for women, the majority of whom are part-time.

"This is about fundamental workers rights. These are not fat cat pensions. There was no justification for what government is doing," she said.

"Our message to the general public is please support us in our struggle for our rights. We have always supported you in yours.

"We don't want to see staff mistreated and face a future that is below the poverty line."

She added that many of the jobs in question were dirty, hard work and took their toll on people and could not effectively be done over the age of 60.

Transport and General Workers Union spokesman, Albert Mills, said: "I envisage this strike will have a wide effect. There have been negotiations going on for months over this and we have asked for the same arrangements as other workers. The government is saying, for some reason, that we can't have that."

Trade union representatives also predicted further all-out strike action and also key worker action over the coming weeks.

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