Council services halted by pensions row walkout

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A strike by local authority workers closed thousands of schools, libraries and leisure centres, crippled council services across the UK and led to travel chaos for motorists today.

Unions said the walkout, in a bitter row over pensions, had been solidly supported by more than a million workers in the biggest bout of industrial action since the 1926 General Strike.

All bus and rail services were at a standstill in Northern Ireland, while the Mersey Tunnels in Liverpool and the Metro on Tyneside were closed.

Picket lines were mounted outside council offices, police stations, universities, day centres, libraries, museums, schools and other local authority buildings.

Unison, the biggest of 11 unions involved in the row, said the turnout had been larger than expected, adding that strikers had received warm public support for their stance.

General secretary Dave Prentis said: "Our members have taken the decision to strike very seriously indeed. They are not selfish people, they are not using any excuse to call 'strike' and have a day off - they are asking simply for what they have paid for and what they deserve.

"These are real people who have paid 6 per cent year in, year out to their pension scheme, and are now being treated like second-class citizens when it comes to paying out on their pensions.

"Strike action is the only option left to local government workers to demonstrate the burning resentment and anger they feel over the Government and employers taking away their pension rights, when those same rights have been given to every other public sector pension scheme. Why should they put up with this discrimination?

"That's the question we have been asking the Government and employers for over a year."

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

Mr Prentis said the Government had reached a deal last year with millions of civil servants, teachers and health workers allowing them to retire at 60.

"All we are asking for is the same kind of protection for council workers," said Mr Prentis.

Chancellor Gordon Brown walked through a picket line of local authority workers without saying anything to the strikers.

But former US President Bill Clinton, who was with Mr Brown, acknowledged the pickets, asking them: "Are you people all right?"

The strikers were picketing the Guildhall in central London, where the two men were attending a conference.

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

"He just walked straight past us without any acknowledgement at all."

Union representatives in Wales said the strike there was "solid", with an estimated 80,000 workers taking part.

Speaking in Cardiff, Unison regional secretary Paul O'Shea said that in many parts of Wales the majority of council buildings, including schools, leisure centres and libraries, had been forced to shut.

He said: "All the reports are that the action is solid. There is a very good feeling and everybody is very cheerful."

Multi-storey car parks in the heart of Newcastle upon Tyne did not open and the city's traffic wardens joined the strike.

Andrew Sugden, policy director of the North East Chamber of Commerce, said: "It is the ordinary man and woman on the street who will be hit hardest. They face transport havoc trying to get to work."

Cross-border train services between Belfast and Dublin were among those hit.

Up to 65,000 schoolchildren take the bus to classes but many stayed at home because of the disruption.

The runway at Leeds-Bradford Airport closed for two hours due to the action.

The Local Government Association said some areas of the country were less affected than others by the strike.

Union leaders have warned that further industrial action will be taken unless the deadlock is broken.