“THIS is just the beginning”.
That was the vow from one of Britain’s most senior union bosses, speaking by the steps of a Hampshire council HQ as strikers across the county brought some public services to standstill.
Firefighters walked out, schools shut, bins went uncollected and libraries closed as public sector workers joined an estimated one million strikers nationwide.
National and local government along with fire service bosses last night dismissed the strikes and insisted it was business as usual.
Unions have joined forces to protest at pay freezes, pension cuts, Government reforms and what they say is the running down of services.
They include the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), GMB, the National Union of Teachers (NUT), the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), Unison and Unite.
But Gail Cartmail, assistant Unite union general secretary (AGS) at the trade union Unite and member of the TUC executive committee and general council, said yesterday’s mass walkout was only the beginning.
She told the Daily Echo: “If necessary we will have more days of industrial action. It is up to our members but I think it is highly likely. It is a hard decision for our members because every day they strike they lose pay.”
She was speaking at a huge rally outside the Civic Centre in Southampton that drew hundreds of striking public sector workers.
Waving placards and chanting anti- Government slogans, they demanded fair pay, workloads and pensions.
Among them were teachers, council staff and civil servants, with demos and pickets taking place across Hampshire and the UK.
Addressing the rally, Ms Cartmail said: “The sun shines on the righteous.
“So who’s on strike? Who are these militants? They are admin workers, care workers and refuge workers.
“It’s the people you rely on – classroom assistants, the teachers – the people who live next door.
“It’s our people, our community standing up for a fair deal.”
In Winchester 100 protesting union members brandished placards and chanted: “They say cut back, we say fight back.”
They gathered outside Hampshire County Council’s HQ and the city’s Guildhall.
Tim Cutter, branch secretary for Hampshire Unison, said: “We have two choices. We can accept that there is no alternative and put up with the cuts and pay freezes, or we can decide that there is an alternative and that is to fight back. Hampshire County Council pays their chief executive nearly £250,000 per year.
“Don’t let them tell us they can’t afford to increase our wages. We are not going to win with one day’s strike action; the only way to win this pay rise is if all the unions come together.”
Speaking to Daily Echo afterwards, Mr Cutter said the one-day strike would be the first of many if the Government failed to act on the demands of public sector workers.
He said: “Today was the first shot in a long battle. Members are clear about what is needed. We would hope we would not need to take further action but we might have to if the Government are not prepared to make us a proper offer.”
As well as rallies, strikers picketed outside their workplace.
In Southampton, striking teachers assembled in Watts Park ready to join the main rally at the Civic Centre.
Meanwhile, working parents faced a childcare headache as more than 130 schools in Southampton and the county council area confirmed they would either be disrupted or closed.
But NUT Southampton representative Pete Sopowski said: “We are sorry that people with childcare issues have to make alternative arrangements.
“But we also have to look after our families and our futures and also it will be their families and their futures when we can’t get teachers to teach because people are leaving the profession at the moment.
“We are here to continually protest at Mr Gove not coming to the negotiating table but he is still not discussing anything properly and its pay, pensions and workload.”
Teachers are protesting against changes to teaching, workload and pay as well as to pensions which could see teachers working until they are 68.
One of the scores of teachers rallying in Southampton yesterday was Liz Tiler, head teacher at Valentine’s Primary in Sholing, Southampton.
She said: “I am here today to stand up for the state education system. I am concerned about the changes Michael Gove is determined to implement.
“My parents in my school don’t want teachers still teaching at 68, when they’re tired and do not have the energy.
They want their children to have a decent education because that’s what’s going to change their lives.”
Despite repeated attempts Southampton City Council were unable to provide a statement on the dispute or the number of workers on strike.
But Councillor Stephen Reid, Hamsphire County Council’s human resources boss, said the impact of the strike was minimal.
He added: “We had contingency plans in place to protect services provided to the young, old and vulnerable in our care. We made every effort to ensure that impact on essential services was kept to a minimum, with as little disruption as possible.”
- Additional reporting by Emily Ford, Charlotte Neal and Holly Sheath.