Council leaders join workers in street protests

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COUNCIL political leaders joined thousands of striking rank-and-file workers in mass protests on the streets of West Yorkshire.

An estimated 7,000 people at a rally in the centre of Leeds were backed by the Labour leader of Leeds Council Keith Wakefield who said workers had “every right to show their grievance”.

The Labour leader of Kirklees Council, Mehboob Khan, was among over 2,000 at a rally in Huddersfield town centre.

He said: “Many of the residents of Kirklees have been severely inconvenienced by the strike action – the blame for this lies squarely with the Government who have refused to negotiate a fair deal for workers’ pensions.”

He said the average pension for public sector workers was between £4,000 and £5,600 a year. “The Government comprises 15 millionaires who I would challenge to live on £5,600 pension per year.”

He said public sector workers were contributing “a fair share into their pension pot” but the Government was “demanding an extra three per cent for no benefit and neither to plug any financial hole in their pensions”.

“There was a great deal of public support from people in the town centre,” he said.

“People told me that they thought the Government had made a colossal mess of the economy and ordinary workers are being asked to pay for it.”

He said the strike action had caused significant disruption in Kirklees but that unions had allowed some staff to work to ensure that vulnerable people did not suffer.

He called on the Government to meet unions and engage in a “fair dialogue” over pensions.

Leeds council leader Keith Wakefield backed workers who joined the strike.

He said: “When you think they are going to have to pay more, take a three per cent pay cut, work longer and get less, I don’t think there is anybody in this city that wouldn’t sympathise.”

Schools and council services were particularly hard hit. Of the 266 schools in Leeds, 202 were closed and 40 were partially closed. In Bradford 156 schools were closed and Kirklees said 142 were closed. A total of 119 were closed in Wakefield, while 87 shut in Calderdale.

The chief executive of Leeds Council, Tom Riordan, said around 60 per cent of staff had not turned up for work but following talks with unions, the impact on the most vulnerable had been minimised.

He added: “Picket lines at council buildings have been peaceful and good natured. We have worked closely with the trade unions over the last week to make sure that the impact of this strike on our most vulnerable residents and service users is kept to a minimum.

“The trade unions took a very responsible position and agreed to provide a limited number of exemptions to staff in critical services based on protecting vulnerable people in life threatening situations.

“We have planned carefully for today and fully respect the decisions of each individual member of staff as to whether they strike or come into work.

“I would like to acknowledge those staff that are in work today for their help in maintaining essential front-line services for the people of Leeds.”

Trade unionists in Leeds claimed that many members of the public backed their action.

Sarah Covell, 49, of Unison, was taking a lunchtime break from her picketing duties with two colleagues after being on her feet from 6.30am in Princes Square by Leeds railway station.

She said: “We have had masses and masses of support. All of the cafes on the station concourse have been providing us with refreshment.

“I have been a trade unionist for a very long time but this is the first time I have on strike and the support we have had has been amazing.”

Colleague Nisha Parmar, 29, said: “It’s the first time I have been on strike – it’s been a phenomenal experience and better than I anticipated. I think it is disgusting that we are having to work longer, pay more and get less out of it.”