40,000 Welsh public sector staff join pensions strike

An estimated 40,000 public sector workers in Wales have joined the one-day strike action in a row over changes to their pensions.

About 1,000 Welsh schools were fully or partly shut as 17,000 teachers walked out with dozens of government buildings and services closed or affected.

Thousands of striking workers held rallies at lunchtime on Thursday.

The Welsh Government said it aimed to minimise the impact. The UK government insists the pension changes are fair.

Peter Harris, national officer for the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union in Wales, said members had little option but to strike.

Thousands took part in staffing picket lines and attended joint union rallies, with an estimated 1,000 in Cardiff city centre, 400 people at Castle Square, Swansea, and 80 in Wrexham town centre.

Image caption About 80 public sector workers take part in a rally in Wrexham town centre at midday on Thursday

Mr Harris said unions had lobbied government in Cardiff and London and taken part in rallies in Pontypridd, Aberystwyth as well as a major protest in London earlier this year.

"No one wants to be on strike," told BBC Radio Wales, adding that talks have been going on since 2007.

"I'm not sure what else we can do," he said. "We are hitting a brick wall."

He estimated 40,000 workers are on strike on Thursday in Wales, saying they faced losing thousands "robbed from their pension pot".

Meanwhile, UK ministers insisted the changes were a vital part of pension reform and were fair to both workers and the taxpayer.

The strike was a protest at plans to raise the station pension age, raise employee contributions and link pension values to the generally lower consumer prices index (CPI) rather than the retail prices index (RPI).

Image caption Anyone for tennis? Workers ignore the game on the big screen during a protest rally in Castle Square, Swansea

Around 17,000 members of three teaching unions - National Union of Teachers (NUT), Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and University and College Union (UCU) are taking industrial action in Wales.

David Evans, secretary of the the NUT in Wales, said around 13,000 of his members were taking part.

More than half of Wales' 1,800 schools are affected, either fully closing or closing some classes.

On Anglesey, every school was affected in some way, with the majority closed.

Just two schools were fully open in Blaenau Gwent, while in Cardiff 112 schools were affected - see more details of expected school closures here.

Thousands of members of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) also took action.

Disruption affected the civil service in Wales including the DVLA, the Office for National Statistics, the passport office and Companies House.

UK government services with walkouts included the Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions, as well as in Jobcentres across Wales.

The walkout also affected the courts service in Wales with a number partly or fully closed in Wrexham and Mold among others.

The National Library of Wales and the National Museum of Wales were also affected.

Cardiff Airport officials said they were not expecting delays despite UK Border Agency staff - who are members of the PCS union - beginning their strike at 1800 BST on Wednesday.

Image caption Picket line outside the HMRC office in Wrexham

The unions held a series of rallies during the day at Wrexham, Llandrindod Wells, Cardiff, Newport, Merthyr Tydfil, and Swansea.

A union delegation met Finance Minister Jane Hutt at Cardiff Bay on Wednesday to call on the Welsh Government to pressure UK ministers on their behalf.

Welsh Government ministers were expected to work as usual but not to cross any picket lines.

The Welsh Government insisted the unions were in dispute with ministers in Westminster about the proposed pension changes, not with ministers at Cardiff Bay.

'Up the ante'

It said: "Pensions are not a devolved matter, and the focus of the Welsh Government is now to minimise the impact of any industrial action on our public services."

Rhondda Labour MP Chris Bryant did not support a strike but said: "We have got to have a reform of public sector pensions and I'd include MPs' pensions in that.

He said the UK government should be "getting round the table and start talking" and not trying to "up the ante by making deliberately provocative remarks".

Addressing parliament during prime minister's questions on Wednesday, David Cameron said "only a minority of unions" took the decision to strike.

Image caption A small group of protesters outside Coleg Menai, Bangor

Wales' First Minister Carwyn Jones told BBC Wales he "can imagine why people have concern about their pensions".

He also called on the UK government to sit down and talk to the unions involved to avoid an escalation.

"The UK government has a responsibility to come up with ideas as to how this matter can be resolved," he said.

Conservative MP for Aberconwy Guto Bebb said the public sector shake-up plans were fair, with a massive difference between public and private sector pension entitlement.

One worker on the picket line outside the DVLA office in Swansea explained that the planned pension changes would increase her monthly contributions by £65 a month.

There was mixed support for the action among parents at schools which are being affected.

Outside Barkers Lane Primary School in Wrexham some parents said they were also struggling financially, and others said they felt strike action would not change ministers' minds.

Image caption Protesting workers outside the DVLA in Swansea on Thursday morning

"I'm not supportive of it if I'm honest," said one mother. "Everyone is struggling. And I appreciate the government is doing it for a reason."

Union officials estimated 50-80% of staff went on strike at the DVLA in Swansea, but cars were seen streaming into the site.

Employment Minister Ed Davey told BBC Wales the changes were balanced and had to be fair to both public sector workers and taxpayers.

In Wrexham, PCS union member Steve Ryan said 95% of workers at the HMRC tax office - which employs about 460 people - were on strike.

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