20,000 public sector workers took part in demonstrations across East Lancashire today to protest over changes to their pensions.
A thousand of those marched noisily through Blackburn town centre this lunchtime amid a sea of flags, banners and placards, travelling to the beat of drums and the shrill of whistles and vuvuzelas.
For 45 minutes workers – some who had brought their children and even their pet dogs - converged outside Blackburn town hall in King William Street where union bosses whipped the crowd into a fervour.
“We’ve been shafted by pay freezes, shafted by job evaluations and now they’re trying to shaft us in our pensions. It’s one shaft too many”, said GMB representative Tim McDermott.
A chant of ‘Get your hands off our pension’ was started by members of the University and College Union, and NASUWT member Lesley Ham said the Government was “not only attacking public service workers but attacking those close to our hearts.”
Union officials estimate that over 95 per cent of schools and colleges were closed in East Lancashire, where 7,000 people work, and 50 per cent of hospital workers were on strike - a total of around 1,000 staff.
Most of the other members involved are employed in local government and in community health centres.
Unions are protesting against Government plans to make staff pay more and work longer to earn their pensions.
Tim Ellis, Unison officer for East Lancashire said: “It was a magnificent response to the day of action. It was uplifting and inspiring.
“It showed the determination of the ordinary people who maintain our public services not to have their pensions cut.”
He added: “The support from the public was continuous and vocally expressed. It undermined the government’s argument that the public wouldn’t support the dispute.”
In Blackburn with Darwen, public buildings remained open including markets and leisure centres, with the exception of Waves and Darwen Leisure Centre.
A skeleton bin collection service ran, but all libraries were closed.
Car and van drivers blew their horns in support of striking workers picketing outside the Royal Blackburn Hospital. Dozens of workers stood singing and chanting at both the staff entrance and main ambulance entrance.
In Burnley, the main council switchboard was closed and there was disruption to some services, but the St Peter’s Leisure Centre and Burnley Market ran as normal.
Outside Burnley police station, control room staff who answer 999 calls, crime scene investigators, PCSOs, criminal justice support staff and front counter workers formed a picket line, with some of them joined by their children.
Assistant secretary of the Lancashire police workers branch of UNISON, James Tattersall, stressed that members did not take strike action lightly.
“This is not a dispute against Lancashire Constabulary, it’s in protest at the Government’s plans to raise pension contributions by 50 per cent, while make us work longer for less.
“To strike is a last resort, I understand police officers are handling emergency calls and if there was a major incident we would return to work immediately.”
At Burnley General Hospital, approximately 100 strikers, including nurses, domestic staff and theatre technicians manned picket lines at four entrances.
Sharon Coulton, 57, a domestic worker at Burnley General Hospital for the last 14 years, said her retirement expectations had been drastically changed.
In Hyndburn, all council offices were closed, but bin collections were carried out as normal.
In Pendle, the markets remained open though Contact Pendle Centre, which includes Pendle Borough Council’s main switchboard, was closed. Staff were on standby to respond to emergency problems.
At Nelson and Colne College, 80 lecturers and other staff were on strike.
No teaching took place although the college remained open for students to use the library and other facilities.
In the Ribble Valley, no services were suspended, but some operated at a reduced level.
Rossendale Council’s offices were open as normal but household waste collections were prioritised and garden waste collections suspended.
A spokeswoman for the North West Ambulance Service (NWAS) said the service had been operating with a reduced workforce and there were less ambulances on the road than normal.
Although 999 calls were answered and responded to, it was thought some patients experienced a slightly delayed response.
The patient transport service only operated for patients who require urgent care.
Some less urgent procedures in East Lancashire hospitals were postponed as well as outpatient appointments for yesterday.
All magistrates courts in East Lancashire, including Blackburn, Burnley, Reedley and Hyndburn were open and operating as normal, as was Burnley Crown Court.
All job centres across Lancashire also remained open and benefits were issued as normal.
Jake Berry, MP for Rossendale and Darwen, condemned the strikes, calling them “outrageous and irresponsible”.
He said: “This was a prime example of the trade union movement riding roughshod not only over the wishes of the general public but also over their own membership. Only a quarter of union members voted for industrial action.”
He added: “These strikes have led to 27 schools in my constituency being closed which means that around 10,000 kids couldn’t go to school today. It has particularly affected single parent families.
“These strikes have caused huge disruption in the community and to many of our small businesses who are already struggling in these hard economic times.”
The day of action is the biggest of its kind for more than 30 years.