By Sean Burns
The North will see a major day of coordinated strike action on 18 January, with tens of thousands of workers across the public sector taking part. It is vital that the action conveys that we will not be held hostage for Stormont’s dysfunction! The funding is available to alleviate the immediate problems while also expanding our public services and granting inflation-proof pay increases. Given the weight of the public sector in the Northern economy, this will almost have the feature of a general strike.
Strike for fair pay
Workers in Northern Ireland are paid less than workers in Britain. The inflationary crisis hit harder here than anywhere else on these islands. The typical full-time public sector worker in Northern Ireland saw their real pay fall by over 7% in 2023. Even the small pay increases won in Britain have not been implemented here.
Many of the unions are demanding pay parity as part of the strike action. This is an important demand but parity cannot be the ceiling. Even with getting pay increases in line with Britain, workers here will still be struggling to make ends meet. Household bills have soared over the past few years particularly in essentials like food and energy. Going beyond parity we must instead demand inflation-proof pay increases for all workers.
Strike for services
Our public services are in crisis. From health to education, every sector is facing the reality of decades of underfunding now reaching a critical point. Schools across Northern Ireland are struggling to pay bills and maintain services. In health, about 122,000 patients are awaiting surgery and 378,400 are waiting to see a consultant for the first time. GP surgeries are closing in many places. The only reason sectors like health and education have not collapsed is because of the commitment of staff to deliver their service.
There is a huge amount of wealth and resources in our society to provide services that are needed, and to pay workers a living wage. UK billionaires boast a combined wealth of £684 billion, which makes the £3.2 billion on offer for Stormont’s restoration seem paltry in comparison. One in every seven of those billionaires is resident in a tax haven. The question is who controls that wealth. So long as this vast wealth rests in private hands, working people will pay the price.
No honeymoon for Stormont parties
The prospect of Stormont returning should be understood for what it is – a clear target for action. There should be no illusion that a return of Stormont would resolve the issues working-class people face. The Stormont parties have continually acted in the interests of big business and in opposition to working-class people. While in the Executive, the Stormont parties imposed a miserly 3% pay rise on health workers during the pandemic – well below inflation at that time – and voted against a 10% rent cut in the context of soaring rents.
Build beyond 18 January
We need a sustained campaign of action, whether the target is Stormont, Westminster or both. One-day action is not enough. It must mark the opening shot of a campaign of sustained, co-ordinated, well-planned and escalating action in our workplaces and communities. The momentum from 18 January cannot be run into the ground. Unfortunately, NIC-ICTU has not been at the races in developing the strike movement. It has focused on appealing to the politicians and urging caution from members rather than capitalising on the momentum and strength that workers have.
The simple truth is that our services and workforces are already at breaking-point – this is what is risking patients’ lives and children’s education. Workers are not responsible for this, and there is no other choice but to strike. The time for tokenistic days of action has long passed. NIC-ICTU should immediately announce further days of strike action in the short-term, as part of a programme of escalating action, including longer strikes and to reach out to private sector workers facing similar pay restraint for further coordinated and generalised action.