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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 March 2006, 19:07 GMT 20:07 UK
Warning of long pensions dispute
Strikers in Liverpool
Tuesday's strike action follows a long-term dispute
Ministers are facing a long dispute with council staff over their pension scheme, unions have warned as a 24-hour strike draws to a close.

Union officials say the UK-wide strike was joined by more than 1m workers, closing many council-run facilities.

Employers estimated 400,000 workers in England had joined the strike.

Ministers hope talks could end the row over the scrapping of a rule allowing some people to retire at 60 without suffering a financial penalty.

The government argues the current rule is discriminatory against those who do not qualify and hopes that an alternative solution can be found. Employers and unions will join Wednesday's talks.

But Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, warned that unions were digging in for a long dispute.

'Burning resentment'

Addressing a London rally attended by hundreds of striking workers on Tuesday, Mr Prentis said there was a "burning resentment" against the government and the Local Government Association (LGA), which represents employers, over the issue.

Metro on Tyneside at a standstill

"[The workers] are understandably angry at being treated like second-class citizens, ignored by the government," he said.

The government had been elected to work for the underdog and was now "kicking us in the teeth", he added.

At the centre of the dispute is the so-called Rule of 85.

This allows council employees to retire at 60 with suffering a financial penalty for early retirement, provided their age and years of service add up to 85.

Local Government Minister Phil Woolas said it was illegal under European age-discrimination legislation, but he hoped an alternative solution could be found.

He told BBC Radio 4's The World At One: "The age of retirement for local government workers is already 65.

'Viable scheme'

"It is not a question of increasing the retirement age. It is a question of how is it possible within a viable funded scheme ... to provide the benefits for people that they would have otherwise got and is that affordable?"

Unions have warned of possible further action in the run-up to the local council elections in May.

Tuesday's action, by 11 unions, was the biggest stoppage in the UK since the 1926 General Strike, they say.

Workers supporting the strike included leisure centre workers, school staff including caretakers, cooks, cleaners and office workers, refuse collectors, housing officers, nursery nurses, youth and community staff and tourism officials.

Council workers are continuing to do their important jobs well
Sir Sandy Bruce Lockhart
LGA chairman

Schools, leisure centres and libraries were among the local authority sites to close in many areas.

Transport was also hit in some areas as some workers formerly employed by local councils, such as bus and subway drivers, remain members of the pension scheme.

All bus and rail services were at a standstill in Northern Ireland, and the Mersey Tunnels in Liverpool, the Metro on Tyneside and Glasgow's subway network all closed.

T&G general secretary Tony Woodley said three-quarters of the strikers were women which, he said, showed ministers were wrong if they thought "low-paid women workers are a pushover".

'Extra cost'

An LGA survey of councils in England suggested that though there had been strong support for the strike in cities, in other areas the numbers on strike were far fewer.

For example at Buckinghamshire County Council, it said 150 staff out of 14,000 had joined the strike.

LGA chairman Sir Sandy Bruce Lockhart said: "Council workers are continuing to do their important jobs well."

Murray Edwards

The government is planning to scrap the Rule of 85 for all workers in April, but the unions say it should have been retained for existing workers, and stopped only for new recruits.

Employers say that with increasing life expectancy in the UK, the rule means they could face a rise in pension contributions of 5bn to 6bn in the next 20 years.

The unions insist local government workers should be treated in the same way as uniformed police, NHS workers, civil servants and teachers - who can all retire on a full pension at 60.




BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
One teaching assistant explains why she is striking



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