Strike shuts Tyne and Wear Metro and closes schools

Council workers, teachers and hospital workers were among those taking part in the protest

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Commuters who use the Tyne and Wear Metro suffered disruption as strike action by public sector workers closed the system.

Hundreds of schools across County Durham, Tyneside and Northumberland were also shut.

Thousands of NHS workers and council staff joined teachers in Wednesday's walkout in a row over pensions.

The government said it needed to make changes to pensions because people are living longer.

Picket lines were set up from the early hours, including at Metro stations, hospitals and council buildings.

At the scene

A rainbow of colour, the Newcastle strikers wore official union-coloured bibs, flew flags, tooted whistles and blew horns in an upbeat march.

It was a cold start as they gathered at Gateshead Civic Centre at 10:30 GMT before setting off an hour later. The 2,000-strong crowd were in high spirits, with a brass band playing Christmas songs.

Workers walked with family members, friends and supporters, who chanted "banks got bailed out, we got sold out", and told me "if we don't support this strike, our pensions are next".

They snaked through Gateshead, across the swing bridge and ended up at Spillers Wharf, growing in numbers throughout and ending with approximately 8,500, according to police.

In County Durham, 235 out of the 262 schools were closed. In Northumberland, 129 of 149 were shut, in Gateshead 71 of the 83 schools were closed, in North Tyneside 66 out of 79 and in South Tyneside 64 out of 66 were closed.

In Newcastle, 106 out of 139 education establishments, including schools, nurseries, Sure Start and play centres, were closed.

Northumbria Police said about 8,500 workers joined a march which set off from Gateshead Civic Centre to a rally at the Newcastle Quayside.

Assistant chief constable Steve Ashman said: "The march was well attended and passed without any problems.

"Northumbria Police fully supports the right to peaceful protest and I have nothing but praise for the behaviour of those who took part."

'Pension burglary'

Lin James, who works at Newcastle University, said that although she was not balloted, she opted not to cross the picket line and would lose a day's pay.

"I'm tired of being frightened about the future and it's a way of taking back power and control and spending time with other people taking action to protect all of us," she said.

"For 20 years I worked for Islington Council and I will be depending on the pension I have accrued there when I retire."

One of the people striking, Pauline Wood, head teacher at Grange Park Primary School in Sunderland, travelled to London to meet the Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander.

RMT picket in South Gosforth, Newcastle Action by workers from the Tyne and Wear Metro brought the service to a halt

She said: "The money that we were promised was in our pension pot and was sufficient to be sustainable.

"How come that is now eroded and we feel like we've been burgled?"

Mr Alexander said: "People should have no fear at all that anything that they've built up until now is in any way affected by this.

"The reason why we believe that change is necessary is because of a fact of life that's going on for everybody in the country, whether they're in the public sector or the private sector, which is that we're all living longer, our life expectancies are greater.

"In those circumstances we have to make sure that... every taxpayer can continue to afford the cost of pensions.

"And that means we need to move the balance between how much time people spend in work and how much they spend in retirement."

The Shields Ferry was closed, but the Tyne Tunnels remained open during the strikes.

Bus company Go North East said its buses Tyne and Wear were "packed with passengers who would normally travel on the Metro".

It put on 40 extra buses and brought in 90 more staff.

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