BARKERS Pool was a sea of flags and banners yesterday as demonstrators voiced their anger at Government pension reforms in the biggest public sector strike in a generation in Sheffield.
Police estimated the size of crowd in the square at 10,000 and it went on to form a huge march that brought the city centre to a standstill.
The national Day of Action crippled public services across Sheffield, with 122 schools forced to close,and a further 33 only partially open. Only 11 state sector primaries stayed open as normal.
Members of all four major teaching unions – the NUT, NASUWT and the usually moderate ATL and NAHT – joined the action, which also hit Sheffield College, the universities, police, fire and ambulance support services, hospitals, libraries, job centres and other central and local government departments. At the same time, emergency services were protected.
The council urged as many schools as possible to stay open, but the strike meant that many parents had to make arrangements to care for their children, some having to take a day off work.
Some of the earliest picket lines went up at hospitals which cancelled outpatient clinics and non-urgent operations. Health service managers covered emergency and urgent care as workers and administrative and domestic staff walked out.
Emergency services were stretched as police officers answered 999 calls and offered first aid support to paramedics to cover for thousands of ‘backroom’ workers who joined the walkout.
The crowd in Barkers Pool was swelled by public sector workers from across the region, insisting they were not prepared to pay more and work longer for a smaller pension.
There was cheering, shouting and a blowing of horns and whistles after GMB Sheffield’s John Stevenson said: “We want to rattle the windows down at Parliament! “Let’s send the Government a clear message: keep your hands off our pensions!”
Tim Roache, GMB regional Secretary, said: “We can’t afford to pay more. We won’t work longer. And we can’t possibly accept less.”
John Campbell, Unison representative at the Northern General, said: “The Government’s pension proposals will be used to pay off the debt which has been caused by the bankers. They will raise £3bn with these proposals. But remember this – next December the same bankers who caused this debt will claim £4bn in bonuses.”
The walkout drew support from outside the trade unions, with pensioners, students and other people demonstrating their support.
But it also aroused strong opposing passions during the run-up, with some private sector workers arguing that the public sector should share some of the financial pain of the Government’s austerity programme.
The Government has said that with people living longer, the cost of public sector pensions is rising and reforms are needed.
Chancellor George Osborne said the “strike is not going to achieve anything” and will only “make our economy weaker and potentially cost jobs”. He urged unions to “get back round the negotiating table”.
But the mood in Barkers Pool was defiant as teachers, nurses, physiotherapists, probation workers, lecturers, local government workers, hospital porters and police call handlers rubbed shoulders in a scale of co-ordinated action not seen since the 1978 Winter of Discontent.
Stephanie Bower, aged 43, from Oughtibridge, a payroll officer at the Northern General Hospital, said: “I’m worried about my retirement. I accept I might have to work longer but at the end of my working life I want to be able to afford a reasonable standard of living.”