‘We will carry on our fight until the Government listens’

Hundreds of council workers, teachers, firefighters and civil servants in Blackpool and across the Fylde coast went on strike – and then warned they will do it all over again if the Government does not listen.

Streets went uncleaned, schools and libraries closed, and families were forced to wait to arrange to lay loved ones to rest as members of unions including Unite, Unison, the PCS and NUT took part in the national industrial action.

Strong feelings: Blackpool Council workers picket line outside the new Talbot Gateway buildings

Strong feelings: Blackpool Council workers picket line outside the new Talbot Gateway buildings

They blamed four years of below-inflation pay rises, changes to pensions and cuts to jobs and services on the back of reduced Government funding for public services.

There were several picket lines in Blackpool town centre yesterday morning and a rally was held in St John’s Square at midday.

And council staff protesting outside the Talbot Gateway building told of their anger at plans by Blackpool Council to freeze pay for two years, refusing even to give employees the one per cent pay rise offered nationally.

Neil Smyth, 45, from Layton, who works with adults with learning disabilities, said: “Our pay has been cut by 20 per cent over four years when you take into account inflation.

“It is absolutely disgusting the council is withholding even a one per cent rise which means we are worse off here than elsewhere in the country.

“If people are not getting pay increases they will not be spending money in the local economy and this is bad for businesses too.

“If we don’t take action now the Government will just continue with what it is doing. They are taking us back to the Victorian era and we are prepared to strike again if they don’t take notice.”

Pauline Cole, 51, of Cleveleys, said she had to hold down three jobs to make ends meet – two jobs in school kitchens and another cleaning at Blackpool Victoria Hospital.

“Nobody should have to work in three different places to earn enough to live on,” she said.

Dave Bennison, 51, from Blackpool, a driver whose duties involve putting up the Illuminations, said: “I’ve not been on strike before but enough is enough.

“We just want fair pay but life is getting harder and we are being left behind.”

Neil Sherman, from Thornton, a 53-year-old dad of three and a craft worker with responsibility for things like signage, said: “Most people are already taking 10 days unpaid leave.

“I’m having to be a lot more careful with my money and cutting back on things like food, heating and socialising. I don’t go out now.

“If a strike is what it takes so be it.”

Rachel Day, 36, a youth worker and mum of two from Kirkham, added: “Prices are going up but our pay is staying the same and there comes a point when you say you are not taking any more of it.”

Jed Sullivan, Unite’s union convener at the council, said: “Staff are being asked to do more with less people and people in the public sector are bearing the burden of problems they did not cause.”

Across Blackpool, only a limited street cleaning service was in operation and all Blackpool libraries were closed with the exception of Central Library.

Moor Park Swimming Pool was closed first thing in the morning but opened at 9.50am and no appointments were taken for cremations or to register births and deaths.

The home to school transport service was cancelled.

Amanda Baines, a science teacher at St Mary’s RC College and divisional secretary at the Blackpool NUT, was among those at the St John’s Square rally. She said in Blackpool at least nine schools had closed, including Montgomery High School, Layton Primary School, The Willows, Thames Primary Academy, Highfurlong School and Woodlands School. Another 12 or 13 had partly closed.

“We’re standing up for education,” said Ms Baines.

“Despite months of talks with the Government the real issues have not been addressed and 40 per cent of new teachers are now leaving the profession within five years.”

She added that complaints included funding, the use of unqualified teachers in classrooms, the need to open new schools where there was a need rather than free schools and academies, and changes to the curriculum and exams being rushed through. The pay offer is one per cent and there are plans to raise the retirement age to 68.

Ms Baines added the introduction of performance related pay was making teachers compete rather than collaborate and that pay levels were being determined by budgets rather than performance.

Yet despite the anger, none of the councils provided a response to the workers’ concerns.

In the Fylde area, which includes Lytham and St Annes, there were closures or partial closures of Clifton Primary School, Freckleton Strike Lane Primary School, Kirkham Pear Tree School, Lytham St Annes Technology and Performing Arts College and St Bede’s Catholic High School.

In Wyre area there were closures or partial closures of 12 schools.

Fire stations also took part in the strike and all nine firefighters at Blackpool Fire Station walked out from 10am-7pm. Lancashire Fire Service had a ‘resilience crew’ in place to provide cover.

Chris Molloy, Blackpool’s Fire Brigades Union representative, said crews were striking in protest at Government plans to raise firefighters’ retirement age from 55 to 60 while raising pension contributions from 13 per cent to 14.2 per cent.

“I understand this is the biggest strike since 1926 so that just shows the strength of feeling,” said Mr Molloy. There will also be eight days of strike action by fire crews from Monday, with two two-hour walk-outs planned each day.

Blackpool Magistrates’ Court was operating with a reduced staff, while Blackpool Driving Test Centre was open but declined to say how many tests had been cancelled.

Elsewhere, some staff at the Peel Park and Warbreck House Department for Work and Pensions processing centres were on strike.

The Government’s civil service minister Francis Maude said it was not right for the public to be inconvenienced, and claimed the unions’ mandates for holding strike action were “weak”.

Hundreds walk out but town halls say impact ‘minimal’

A Fylde Council spokesman said 50 of its 260 staff had been on strike but there had been only a minimal impact on frontline services. He said just seven of its 79 operational services employees with responsibility for bins and street cleaning were not in work.

A Wyre Council spokeswoman said 15-20 per cent of its 380 staff had taken part in the strike. She said street cleaning had been reduced and that bereavement and building control services had been affected with any appointments – such as to make arrangements for burials - being re-arranged.

Blackpool Council declined to comment.