Northern Ireland: escalate public sector strike

02 February 2024

By Bernie McAdam

OVER 150,000 public sector workers went on strike on Thursday 18 January in the biggest strike action the ‘Northern Ireland’ state has ever seen. Workers from 16 trade unions involving public transport, education, health and the civil service walked out for the day over an outstanding pay award. A near General Strike has brought the region to a standstill with picket lines, protests and rallies throughout the province.

Many of these unions have been on strike over the course of the past year but this is the first time coordinated strikes have been called. It has received the backing of the leaders of the Northern Ireland Committee – Irish Congress of Trade Unions (NIC-ICTU), a sure sign that rank and file working class anger was at boiling point for them to resort to action. A brief look at the appalling treatment of these workers explains why this industrial action has been so popular.

If we look at the real value of public sector pay, the difference between pay awards and inflation, it has declined by more than 4% between April 2021 and April 2022. The following year the decline reached 7%. Added to this is the startling fact that workers in Northern Ireland receive less pay than similar workers in the rest of the UK. Pay parity is obviously a vital demand but not in itself sufficient.

The public sector has been subject to years of savage cuts by the Tories. ‘On almost every measure Northern Ireland’s health and care system performs worse than anywhere else in the UK’ (British Medical Association). Waiting lists are proportionally much higher and rising. The 23/24 budget for education was cut by 2.5% with the Education Authority announcing that a considerable number of schools are facing ‘an unsustainable financial position’. Teachers’ pay has not been increased for three years with a huge gap opening up with the rest of the UK.

Clearly public sector workers have had enough as they see their services at breaking point! The response from Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris has been to promise a £3.3 billion package, some of which would be used for pay, providing the Stormont institutions are restored. The Executive and Assembly have been suspended due to a DUP boycott. This is totally unacceptable, workers’ living standards should not be held to ransom by Tory negligence and manoeuvres nor the sectarianism of the DUP. Even a restoration of Stormont won’t automatically ensure a satisfactory pay rise!

Whilst this strike shows the enormous power of workers striking together, it is clear that one day action will not be enough. Carmel Gates NIPSA General Secretary says ‘this is the beginning, we will escalate’. But these words must be turned into a definite strategy for victory. There can be no reliance on our leaders to do this. The rank and file must maintain the momentum of this strike by creating joint union councils of action which can hold the leadership accountable and prosecute an escalating and coordinated programme of action all the way up to an indefinite strike.

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