Thousands of public workers went on strike across the North East with a warning that Government cuts are costing the North dear.
More than 400 schools in the region were fully or partially closed as teachers went on strike, and they were joined by council workers, firefighters and civil servants as a number of public service unions held co-ordinated walk-outs.
Picket lines were mounted outside schools, council offices, Jobcentres and fire stations in outpourings of anger over the coalition’s public sector policies.
Government Ministers criticised the strike and have stepped up threats that legislation could be introduced making it mandatory for a set proportion of union members to take part in a ballot before the strike was legal.
Public reaction to the strike appears to be split between those backing the unions and people criticising teachers and other public servants for leaving their job.
A number of MPs from the region have backed the walk-out and pointed out that most MPs would not pass the Government’s requirement to get 50% of the vote.
Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery said: “The Prime Minister can’t continue to destroy the lives of hardworking people and expect no reaction.
“Today’s strike is a result of millions of dedicated, mainly low paid workers being hammered into the ground in terms of wages and living standards.
“Wages are frozen, prices are increasing and people are between £1,600 and £2,000 per year worse off. They have a right to respond and they demand to be given a fair hearing.”
Easington MP Grahame Morris said: “Over a million across the country are exercising their democratic right to withhold their labour, because four years of Coalition government cuts have targeted working people whose pay, pensions and conditions have been continually attacked and eroded.
“It was not teachers, firefighters or council staff who took the country to ruin, but city speculators who gambled with our economy.”
And Jarrow MP Stephen Hepburn said: “There may be an imaginary world where managers and employees are able to resolve their differences without any conflict. It’s not the one we live in and union members have the right to defend themselves if the Government won’t.
“I strongly support the unions and hope that the dispute is resolved swiftly.”
Thousands joined a march through Newcastle City Centre campaigning against cuts, changes to pensions, pay and work conditions.
Chants of “they say cut back, we say fight back” could be heard as the crowd of teachers, firefighters, health workers, council staff and civil servants led the procession from outside City Pool, near the Civic Centre, as part of the one-day walk-out with teachers also highlighting concerns over children’s education and firefighters raising their fears that cuts risk lives.
Shirley Ford, 50, an administrative assistant at Marine Park Primary School in South Shields, said: “I was also on the picket line in South Shields this morning and when you’re in a small school it’s hard to sense how everyone else is feeling so this is great to see - and the sun has come out!”
Andy Nobel, executive member for the FBU in North East, said: “Public support during our whole dispute has been fantastic. When they’ve heard our arguments there hasn’t been a great deal, if any, adverse public reaction.”
Cheers greeted the speakers at the rally who included Chris Jukes, of the GMB, said the national turn-out was “the second biggest turn of action since the end of the Second World War”.
A familiar face lending his support was local actor Joe Caffrey, accompanying his father, retired Unison member Joe Caffrey senior, who was standing up for service providers whose pensions are taking a hit.
Beth Farhat, regional secretary of the Northern TUC, said: “Under this government the North East has lost 49,000 public sector jobs and the region’s public services are all the weaker for it.
“What’s worse is that we’re not even halfway the Chancellor’s planned cuts. TUC analysis shows the average public sector worker is now on average £2,245 worse off in real terms since the last election and that’s a big loss in spending power to a region like ours.
“The Government is destroying our public services while handing massive tax cuts to the richest and allowing the banks who caused this crisis to continue dishing out bonuses as usual. Collecting the taxes avoided by the wealthy and big corporations should be more of a priority rather than hammering the wages of school cooks, teachers and other public service workers.”