Striking public sector workers march in Southampton

Southampton rally

Hundreds of striking workers took to the streets of Southampton

Thousands of striking workers have protested across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight over planned pension reforms.

More than 450 schools were closed or partially shut across the two counties as public sector workers staged a 24-hour walkout.

Libraries and leisure centres were shut and the Cowes floating bridge was closed to motorists.

Rallies were held in Portsmouth, Southampton, Winchester, Basingstoke and Newport on the Isle of Wight.

The unions said workers would have to work longer, pay more and receive less. The government has urged more talks.

Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove said it was "unfair and unrealistic" to expect taxpayers to foot the increasing public sector pensions bill.

'Always difficult'

Among workers on the picket line across Southampton was Andy Cooper, who works at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency HQ in Southampton.

He said: "It's always very difficult to go on strike - especially when you are losing money just before Christmas. The idea that anyone wants to go on strike is frankly ridiculous.

"But hard-working people are facing poverty in old age.

"I'm not sure who will be able to afford to retire at whatever that age will be - politicians have no understanding of how important it is to make sure our futures are secure."

FROM THE SCENE

Up to 2,000 trade union members took to the streets of Southampton. As the long line of marchers snaked through Hoglands Park at about 12:30 GMT, their banners fluttered in the stiff breeze and the cacophony of whistles and vuvuzellas filled the air.

The city has got used to strikes and union rallies over the past six months. On this occasion, council workers who have been striking since the spring over pay, were joined by groups including teachers, court workers, civil servants and hospital workers - for many, striking was a new experience.

As they marched the short distance through the main Above Bar shopping precinct, to a rally at Guildhall Square, chants of "2-4-6-8 we won't work till 68" spelt out the marchers' anger at the government's pension proposals.

The reaction of those shoppers watching ranged from outright and open support, to bemusement or the occasional disapproving comment.

As the rain started to fall, union leaders took to the microphone in Guildhall Square to denounce the government's pension plans to the loud approval of the assembled crowd.

Cathy Roblin, a social worker with the learning disability team at Southampton City Council, said: "I'm a single mum and have very strong feelings about not wanting to live in poverty in old age.

"I believe the pensions reforms will affect many women who have had career breaks or who have a poorer salary.

"We are not putting people's lives at risk, we've made sure the most vulnerable clients are protected and cared for."

Hampshire County Council said it had 322 schools either closed or partially closed out of a total of 502.

Portsmouth had 52 schools shut or partially shut out of 66 while Southampton had 75 affected out of 81.

Head teacher at St Mark's CE Primary School in Southampton, Anne Steele-Arnett, who was taking part in industrial action for the first time in 31 years, said: "We feel we're being railroaded into a position.

"My concerns and one of the reasons I am going out on strike is to protect our profession."

But some civil servants do not support the action.

Scott Ross, from Farnborough, who works for the Ministry of Defence, said: "In the last three years I have experienced the loss of my business and home.

"When are these people going to realise that they don't have it that bad?

"Most of the so-called people on strike won't even show their support today, they will go and do their Christmas shopping instead."

On the Isle of Wight, 30 schools were closed and 13 were partially shut out of a total of 51.

People in Southampton have been giving their reaction to the strikes

All libraries were closed on the island along with the records office and Medina Leisure Centre.

A number of nurseries also reported a big surge in demand as parents tried to find places for their children so they could continue to work.

A blood donation session in Portsmouth was cancelled.

Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service said it had taken steps to minimise disruption but stressed its emergency response staff would not be taking part in the action.

The unions have agreed 999 services will be covered but services such as ambulance transfers and non-emergency call handling could be disrupted.

'Achieve nothing'

Hospitals in Southampton said some routine surgery and clinic appointments would be affected but it had "robust plans" to ensure emergency services ran as normal.

Andy Straker, Unison representative on the picket line at Southampton General Hospital, said: "In Southampton you'll see picket lines on every street.

"Our members have been left with no option, the government won't negotiate, so here we are."

Strikers in Isle of Wight Picket lines have been set up across the Isle of Wight for the strike action

Caroline Nokes, Conservative MP for Romsey and Southampton, said: "We have to address the crisis, change has to happen. Somebody can now expect to live 10 years longer, this reform has to happen.

"We have to look at these final salary pensions to see that they are funded into the future."

Agreeing with that was Solent University drama student James Wright, one of the bystanders at the Southampton union rally, whose classes were cancelled.

He said: "We're wasting our fees money because they want to have a strike.

"If the government has to do this to help the economy, some people are going to lose out."

Southampton Airport was operating normally, with any disruption limited to inbound international flights, of which there were due to be 12, a spokesman said.

"All domestic inbound and outbound and outbound international flights will be unaffected," he added.

Passengers arriving by ferry to Portsmouth were expected to face normal travel conditions.

Striking workers held rallies in towns and cities in the south of England, including Dorchester, Southampton, Oxford and Reading

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