Public sector strikes: Thousands attend England rallies

Tens of thousands of public sector workers have taken part in marches and rallies across England to protest against planned changes to pensions.

Hundreds of events have been held around the country as part of what unions have claimed is the biggest walkout in a generation.

Unions are opposed to government plans to make their members pay more and work longer to earn their pensions.

The government intends to increase public sector workers' pension contributions and to raise the pensionable age to 67 by 2026.

It has said the changes were "absolutely essential", insisting the cost of funding public sector pensions was "unsustainable" as people were living longer.

BBC reporters attended a series of strike events across England:

Wakefield - Trevor Gibbons

At Fieldhead Psychiatric Hospital in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, the excitement of a morning's picketing concerned the imminent arrival of 30 bacon sandwiches for the hungry Unison pickets.

Image caption Care workers at Fieldhead Psychiatric Hospital in Wakefield were among those on strike in Yorkshire

Evelyn Beckley from the union was "very pleased" with the turnout.

Cars arriving at the hospital stopped and the drivers took a leaflet and politely heard the arguments. Some non-union members even expressed their sympathy with the strikers but still went into the building.

The mood of the strikers was determined although feet were stamped and hands clapped against the cold of the morning.

One picketer solved the perennial picketing problem by placing his placard's stick down the back of his coat with the message above his head, leaving him free to put his cold hands into his pockets.

Supportive hoots from cars were all followed by a ragged picket's cheer.

Manchester - Lucy Ewing

Parents, babies in prams, grandparents, people in wheelchairs, and others pushing bikes, spilled into Manchester's Deansgate shortly after 11:30 GMT.

Image caption The Manchester march attracted 20,000 strikers

They carried their union banners overhead - with slogans including "Eric Pickles ate my pension" and "Hands off our pensions" - in the sunshine.

Young children skipped along, many carrying homemade banners in support of their parents' pensions, blowing their green vuvuzelas and whistles with gusto.

Drummers, carrying PCS posters, added to the atmosphere.

Passers-by stopped, applauded and took photographs as the demonstrators took over one of the city centre's main streets.

An estimated 20,000 marchers had all come into town with one message for the government - "Everyone deserves a decent pension", as one Unison poster declared.

Dozens of police officers kept a close eye on the marchers - with the force helicopter overhead - but it was a friendly atmosphere, albeit with a serious message.

They weaved their way through the city centre, before taking part in a rally in Whitworth Park.

Kent - Tanya Gupta

Teachers on strike in Kent have said taking part in the national day of action has been one the "hardest decisions" they have had to make.

Image caption Up to 400 people took part in the Maidstone rally

They have accused the government of carrying out a PR war against the public sector and failing to take part in meaningful talks to halt industrial action.

Hundreds of schools were closed in the county on Wednesday as staff gathered to take part in rallies, including a march through the county town of Maidstone.

NASUWT representative and part-time teacher Julia Harris said: "I don't know what they [the government] are doing.

"We would have called for meaningful negotiation. But nothing happened. We got to the end. We got to that point."

Deputy head teacher of a primary school in Dartford, Martin McCusker, said: "It's the hardest decision I have made in my career."

He said: "The government are castigating us and painting us in the role of 1970s militants."

London - Sarah Bell

Standing out in their suits, ties and smart overcoats, the headteachers took their place at the front of the march. It's the first time their union, the NAHT, has been on strike for 112 years.

Image caption The strikes led to more than 2,000 London schools being closed

Chris Hill, head of Hounslow Town primary school, said all of the school's staff were striking for the first time.

"It's not a decision we take lightly but we have to take a stand," he said.

Also among the thousands gathering in central London were paramedic staff, out for the first time since the 1970s.

Among the placards and balloons was a common message to the government: "Don't work longer, and pay more to get less."

The number of protesters joining the march delayed its start for almost an hour, and progress was slow.

They were watched by a huge number of police - with roads to the City blocked by barricades and Trafalgar Square ringed with a wall of steel.

The protest ended with a rally at Victoria Embankment - perhaps the cheers were heard a few hundred metres away in Downing Street.

Coventry - Andrew Dawkins

Banners and flags were waved with the GMB union, the Socialist Party, the FBU and NUT Coventry all represented at a rally in Coventry.

Image caption Unions said 2,500 people attended the Coventry rally

The atmosphere was noisy with horns being tooted by passing cars and chants of "No ifs, no buts, no public sector cuts" from the marchers.

The crowd gathered at Victoria Square, close to the city's cathedrals before marching to the council house in the city centre.

For about an hour they listened to various speeches, mostly given by union members.

At the end, at about 12:20 GMT, four fire engines appeared, to a round of applause before the crowd began to disperse.

Birmingham - Robyn Dangerfield

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Media captionNurse James Anthony said he could end up retiring several years later than he wants to

Thousands of marchers waving different coloured union banners and flags wound their way through Birmingham.

Shoppers stood and watched as striking workers made their way past St Philip's Cathedral and New Street station.

To the sound of air horns and whistles, the protest was led by a team of marshals through the city streets to the National Indoor Arena (NIA) where a rally was taking place.

Thousands of people gathered at the NIA to take part in a pensions rally. Forty-year-old Hayley Evans, a teacher from Wolverhampton, said the pension changes were unfair.

"It means another seven years' service with little pension at the end of it, paying more, getting less," she added.

Steven Godfrey, 52, a union representative who works for University Hospitals Birmingham, claimed it was a "myth" that public sector pensions were better than private ones.

"I've got both and my private sector pension is far better than the one I will receive off the public sector, that's without the cuts that they're proposing," Mr Godfrey, from Bromsgrove, said.

Plymouth - Jonathan Morris

The sound of vuvuzelas created a party atmosphere in the crowd as hundreds of public service workers wheeled around Plymouth city centre.

Image caption The GMB union was among about 30 unions at the march through Plymouth city centre

But amid the upbeat atmosphere was a serious intent - the city's part in a national protest against proposed changes to public sector pensions.

"Last weekend I worked out that the combined effect of the government's changes will reduce the value of my pension by 60%," said Plymouth teacher and father of three, Duncan Osbourne, 48.

A chill November wind swept in from the Atlantic across the wide open plaza opposite the Guildhall where the marchers were gathering. They later headed to the Holiday Inn for a rally.

Mr Osbourne's wife Beverley, 45, a secondary school supply teacher, said: "My family were miners and when I was a teenager at my local college it was during the miners' strike.

"My family were standing up for what they felt was just and right, and we're doing the same now."

Police estimated the turnout at about 500, organisers reckoned nearer 1,000.

Onlooker Roland Sloggett, 37, said: "I think it's clear that change is coming and this could be the start of something far greater."

Blackburn - Lynette Horsburgh

From teachers to refuse collectors, they lined the streets in Blackburn, tooting on vuvuzelas, banging on drums and even blowing saxophones.

Image caption Twenty-eight unions joined forces to march through the streets of Blackburn

The atmosphere felt like a family day out - in fact for some it was just that.

Paul and Andrena Newton brought along son Lewis, eight, and Alyssa, five.

Mr Newton, a refuse collector, said he and his wife, who works as an NHS administrator, felt they had to do something.

He said: "We don't mind paying more for our pensions or working longer but we are being ripped off and it is a race to the bottom.

"We brought the kids along and they really enjoyed themselves."

Blackburn College lecturer Mark Thistlethwaite took along his Jack Russell dog Tip with a banner saying "Paws off our Pensions".

Brighton - Nick Tarver

Brighton is no stranger to public protest.

In this year alone it has sprouted two separate anti-capitalist camps, several public sector rallies and an English nationalist march.

But it was Wednesday's public sector strikes over pensions which have drawn the largest crowds.

The marchers, from several separate unions, converged upon Victoria Gardens following pickets around the city.

Image caption Union members picketed the University of Brighton and outside the city hall

They joined together, blowing whistles, banging drums and chanting slogans.

The march was intended to project a display of mutual disgust over the government plans to alter public sector pensions. But in Brighton they were preaching to the converted.

The Green Party are in charge of the council and the city elected Caroline Lucas as the UK's first Green MP.

Tom Hickey, principal lecturer in philosophy at the University of Brighton, said the country was moving towards the city's more alternative view of the world.

"Brighton does have a distinctiveness but one of the characteristics [of the strike] is that the whole of the country is becoming increasingly like Brighton and looking for an alternative," he said.

Protester Malcolm Cook, who is part of the Occupy Brighton movement, also saw the strike as a coming together of various left-of-centre political groups.

He said: "If this isn't a groundswell I don't know what is."

Gateshead to Newcastle march - Karen Slater

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

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

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.

Leeds - Trevor Gibbons

A strong wind whipped across Victoria Gardens in Leeds as an estimated 7,000 strikers crowded in.

Image caption Thousands of people joined the rally in Leeds

The crowd, overlooked by Leeds Town Hall and a reclining figure sculpted by Henry Moore, cheered as speaker after speaker took to the microphone.

Celia Foot, from the NASUWT, got the biggest reaction from the crowd as she said: "We are only beginning."

A teacher from Swillington Primary School near Leeds told the crowd "everyone has a right to a decent pension".

Some speakers said they had not been on strike before but many guessed this would not be the only strike over the pension issue.

At the edges of the rally the wind caused violent eddies full of discarded leaflets and placards, and made hearing the speeches difficult.

Meanwhile yards away down the Headrow Leeds' lunchtime crowds shopped and grabbed lunch.

Carlisle - Adam Flett

As the town hall clock in Carlisle city centre chimed noon, about 500 people of all ages gathered to show their support for the protest against cuts to public sector pensions.

Colourful flags fluttered over the heads of the crowd as organisers welcomed everyone and the first speeches began.

Image caption The Carlisle strikers brought a normally busy road to a standstill

Fifteen minutes later, to the sounds of hooters and whistles, the crowd set off down Scotch Street to parade around the city.

Now about 1,000 strong, and with a police escort, the snake of people walked towards the Civic Centre, the headquarters of Carlisle City Council, before entering Lowther Street.

Here, traffic on the normally busy road was brought to a standstill. Many drivers honked their horns and applauded as the peaceful procession walked past.

Led by a big orange banner with the words 'Pensions Justice' written on it, the good spirited and very noisy parade returned towards the city centre via English Street.

With the sky threatening rain, the organisers rounded up the event with a minute of noise and passionate speeches.

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