Council workers' one-day strike heralds long dispute

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The leader of Britain's biggest union warned that yesterday's strike by hundreds of thousands of council workers throughout the country could be the first walkout in a long dispute.

The stoppage - the biggest for 80 years - closed thousands of schools, libraries and leisure centres and disrupted a wide range of local authority services.

The Local Government Association (LGA) said only a "small minority" of councils in England had been affected, but conceded that workers in London, the Liverpool area, the North-east and Nottingham had shown strong support for the strike, mounted in protest at proposed cuts in pension entitlements.

Unions said the stoppage had been supported by more than a million workers in the biggest walkout since the General Strike in 1926. An estimated 17,500 schools were forced to close.

Unison, the largest of the 11 unions involved, said turnout had been larger than expected and that there had been substantial public support.

In an attempt to head off a prolonged conflict which would severely damage union support for the Labour Party in the forthcoming local government elections, ministers agreed to meet union leaders today.

Hundreds of striking council workers packed into a rally at Central Hall, Westminster, yesterday to hear Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison, warn that unions were digging in for a long dispute and said ministers now faced a "massive backlash".

The workers had a "burning resentment" against the LGA as well as the Government over plans to change their pension scheme. "They are understandably angry at being treated like second-class citizens, ignored by this Government."

Mr Prentis said it was right that a deal was struck last year to protect the pensions of civil servants, teachers, health workers and other public-sector employees. "But if it is good enough for doctors and teachers it is good enough for our members in local government. Civil servants in Whitehall are protected but not cleaners in town halls."

Mr Prentis said it was "unjust and unfair" to treat council workers differently. He said the unions were now dealing with a Government that no longer cared, which had been elected to work for the underdog, but was now "kicking us in the teeth".

He accused ministers of lining up with Tories in local government to change the pension scheme.

Derek Simpson, general secretary of Amicus, hit back at criticism of the strike by the CBI director general, Sir Digby Jones.

"We have today been treated to the grotesque spectacle of the CBI, the representatives of the rich and powerful, condemning low-paid public servants desperately struggling to protect their modest pension provisions."

The unions are protesting at plans to scrap the so-called "rule of 85" which allows staff to retire at 60 if their age and length of service adds up to 85 years.

The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, who expects to attract the support of unions in any forthcoming Labour leadership contest, walked through a picket line of local authority workers without talking to the strikers.

But the former US president Bill Clinton, who was with Mr Brown, acknowledged the pickets at London's Guildhall, asking them: "Are you people all right?"

Paul Hayes, an official with the GMB union, said there was a feeling of "astonishment" at the Chancellor's behaviour.