Industrial action spreads across the public sector

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Driving tests were cancelled and benefit offices closed yesterday as an estimated 100,000 public sector workers joined teachers in taking industrial action in protest at the Government's decision to impose a below-inflation cap on their pay rises.

The scale of the one-day strike, which affected coastguard stations, immigration centres, jobcentres, benefit offices and pension contact centres, revived memories of the "Winter of Discontent" in 1978-79. The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which called the strike action, reported the closure of almost half of Britain's 19 coastguard control centres. A large number of those jobcentres that remained open offered little or no service, resulting in the cancellation of interviews with jobseekers.

Approximately 4,000 driving tests were cancelled. People trying to get through on the phone to Pension Service and Jobcentre Plus contact centres were told to call back another time by a recorded message. Immigration reporting centres in London and Liverpool were closed, leading to the cancellation of asylum interviews.

Staff said they were furious over a series of below-inflation pay rises of around 2 per cent, while prices rose by about 4 per cent, which they said amounted to a real-terms cut in their living standards. In the Department for Work and Pensions, 40 per cent of the workforce will receive no pay rise this year.

A spokesman for the union said pay in the Civil Service was among the lowest in the public sector, with starting salaries just above the minimum wage and a quarter of staff earning less than £16,000 a year. "The breadth and depth of the support for today's strike has been fantastic as some of the lowest paid in the public sector take a stand over pay cuts and pay freezes," said Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary.

"Those on strike know, as do independent experts, that it is not their wages that are fuelling inflation, but the ever-rising energy, food and mortgage costs. It is disgraceful that the Government should hide behind such a discredited argument to force down the wages of hard working civil and public servants – some of them on minimum wage" He said Gordon Brown should start viewing the Government's workforce as the victims of inflation and not the cause by reviewing his pay policy and paying them a fair wage.

University lecturers in further education are planning industrial action amid anger that their wages are below those of teachers.

Prison officers rejected the Government's 2.2 per cent pay deal in March. An injunction preventing industrial action expires on 8 May, when a new law making strikes in the prison service illegal comes into effect – but wildcat strikes occurred last year.

Meanwhile, police forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are still angry over the Government's controversial decision not to backdate their 2.5 per cent pay rise, and are seeking a judicial review in an attempt to overturn the decision.

A further 500,000 health workers in the NHS are being balloted by their union, Unison, over a 2.75 per cent pay deal, with a warning that industrial action could follow any rejection. The Royal College of Nursing has recommended acceptance of the offer, but is also consulting its members until 28 May.