UK

Public-sector action: To strike or not?

Hundreds of thousands of teachers and civil servants are planning industrial action on Thursday in protest at government plans to change their pension schemes.

As many as 750,000 public-sector workers will not be going into work. The closure of more than 3,000 schools in England and Wales and partial closure of more than 2,000 is expected.

Not all public-sector unions will be striking - some are continuing to negotiate with the government.

Here, a selection of union members affected by Thursday's industrial action share their views.

Secondary school teacher Robin Johnson, 40, North West.

"I've never, ever, considered striking before," says Robin Johnson, who considers himself a moderate - rather than a militant - union member.

But Mr Johnson this week switched his union membership from a union that isn't striking to the National Union of Teachers so that he could participate in Thursday's action.

He says he just did not feel comfortable about not joining his co-workers in losing a day's pay when he agreed with the reasons they were striking. "It's not about downing tools it's about the principle of it," he says.

"I don't have an issue paying more [towards my pension] and I don't have an issue working longer or getting less. My issue is the lack of transparency," Mr Johnson says. "There isn't transparency in terms of what [pension] size the deficit is."

He says the government needs to justify why changes to the pension scheme are needed.

The issue of striking and its impact on students is "a tricky one", he acknowledges, and his school head teacher has yet to make a final decision on whether all students should come in.

*Mr Johnson, an NUT member, says his pension contributions are expected to rise by about £85 a month.

Secondary school teacher David, 53, Lancashire

David, who asks for his surname not to be published, is totally against the strike action his union is participating in.

"It will do absolutely nothing - the only thing it's going to do is anger parents who think we do nothing anyway," he says.

"I'm opposed to the type of action, but I'm also opposed to the fact that many people don't know what the strike's about

"They've been hyped up by the press and the unions to take action, when really they don't understand."

An example of that is unions' different estimates of members' pension rises, he says.

David says the best way for younger staff to get their message across to the government would be to actually pull out of the pension scheme - reducing the amount of money available.

He says both unions represented at his school have conscience clauses, meaning that striking is not compulsory, and only four of the 14 members of his union are striking. But he says he has received a lot of flak for not joining the action.

Despite it being a quiet time of year, David says the strike will have an effect on students and any missed lessons will need to catch up.

"The unions are urging everyone to go out on strike, but it hits the kids. Why should we hit the kids when it's our pensions?"

*David, a union member, spoke on condition of anonymity. He says his pension contributions are expected to increase by about £41.35 a month, rising to £82.71 by 2013 according to the ATL, or £80.35 according to the NUT.

Secondary school teacher Julia Neal, 55, South Devon.

Image caption Julia Neal says the proposed rise in pension contributions is effectively a tax

Julia Neal says she would prefer not to be going on strike but feels the government has left her no choice.

"It's the first time I've ever gone on strike - I do it with a heavy heart," she says. "We feel that it's a last resort - we've essentially been pushed to it because they haven't really consulted us."

"We hope that it will make the government realise that our members are very angry and really it would be much more helpful if they went back to negotiating with us."

Ms Neal says it is not right that teachers should be expected to work longer for less and that some people will be unable to pay the increased contributions.

"We feel that a 50% rise in contributions is really a tax on our pensions," she says.

"Why is it that teacher pensions should be hit because the government numbers don't add up?"

Ms Neal says the proposed changes to teachers' pension schemes will discourage new people from becoming teachers and the strike action - while regrettable - is for the future good of education.

She has not directly asked her students - who are mainly years 10 and 11 - what they think of the strike but thinks they understand the issues behind it.

"I think there's a quiet acceptance and quiet support." The students were quite sensitive about the hike in student fees, she says.

"I don't feel any hostility at all."

*Ms Neal, an ATL member, says her pension contributions are expected to rise by £122 a month.

College lecturer Lesley Shelley, 57, Birmingham.

Lesley Shelley is a paid member of the UCU but says her Jehovah's Witness faith prevents her from striking.

"I will go into work and fulfil my duties but I do support what the union are doing fully, I've never known my colleagues to be so angry," she says.

"You put into the pension scheme so that you get a decent retirement," she says. "I think people tend to think you get these huge money pots but it's not the case with teachers."

Mrs Shelley says she agrees changes need to be made to the public-sector pensions system, but she feels the government may be fudging its figures.

"[The changes] will break the backs of a lot of teachers and they'll come out of teaching. We've got bank managers and engineers coming into teaching because they feel they want to do a job that's more worthwhile. Why will they bother?" she says.

"I'm at the end of my career but young people are facing a huge debt for their training and now face big pension contributions," she says. "We need fresh blood in the teaching profession.

"[The strikers] are coming out for the next generation of teachers to give them faith."

Mrs Shelley says students at her college have been supportive of the action and most of those whose teachers are absent will be able to work from home.

*Mrs Shelley, a UCU member, says her pension contributions are expected to rise by £90 a month.

Crown Prosecution Service worker Alex Leach, 30, Hull.

Image caption Alex Leach hopes the strike will see the government resume "meaningful" negotiations

Crown Prosecution Service worker Alex Leach says the government's plans will see workers "put more into pensions, pay more and receive less when we retire".

He says a lot of people feel like they are being kicked out of their pension scheme because of the increased cost of contributions.

Mr Leach has been a PCS union representative for about six years and has taken strike action before. But he says Thursday's strike is significant.

"This is certainly the biggest strike I've encountered," he says.

On Thursday, he will be on the picket line and attending a rally in the centre of Hull.

"No-one here wants to go on strike, but we feel that we're being forced down that avenue at the moment."

*Mr Leach, a PCS member, says his pension contributions are expected to rise by £47.50 a month.

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