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Report on cost of living crisis rally at Stormont

26 June 2022

The NIC-ICTU ‘Cost of Living Crisis’ rally at Stormont.

A rally to highlight the impact of the ongoing cost of living crisis was held in Belfast on Saturday (25/05/22).  The rally, organised by the Northern Ireland committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (NIC-ICTU), under the banner of “Get Stormont Back to Work – Workers Demand Action”, took place within the grounds of the Stormont estate, the seat of the north’s devolved government.  A crowd of around fifteen hundred people – mostly made up from various trade union contingents- gathered at the main entrance gates and then marched to the front of the Parliament building where they were addressed by a number of speakers.

The speeches commenced with Allison Miller of NIC-ICTU.  She gave a mostly descriptive explanation of the cost-of-living crisis citing numerous of how workers were struggling.  She claimed that inflation was not caused by wages but by external factors such as rising energy and fuel costs.   In response to the cost-of-living crisis NIC-ICTU had two main demands – (1) for Westminster to provide financial supports to the devolved institutions and (2) for the NI Executive to be restored in order to roll out mitigation programmes.  Alison also pledged support on behalf of ICTU for workers taking industrial action to secure pay rises.

Most of the speakers that followed were representatives of unions based in the various parts of the public sector.  They provided testimonials of how rapidly conditions were deteriorating in sectors such as education, health and social care.  There was also a speaker from Unite who spoke about the ongoing industrial action by workers at the Caterpillar company.  The most militant speech from the platform was by Carmel Gates of NIPSA.  She said that it was not true that everyone was feeling the effects of inflation but rather that the burden was being carried by the working class.  Another myth was that inflation was caused by the pandemic or the war in Ukraine.  For her, these only exposed the deep class inequality that had always existed in society. Carmel concluded by calling for the discontent and anger within the working class to be channelled into “organised militant resistance” and for trade unions to use industrial action to secure above inflation pay rises.  Drawing the rally to a close Allison Miller gave an assurance to workers in struggle that the trade union movement would stand behind them.  She said that the rally was not a one-off event and that the Northern Committee of ICTU would be meeting in the upcoming days to plan further action

Given the location of the rally, and the main demand put forward, it is very clear that the primary strategy of ICTU in addressing the cost-of-living crisis in the north is the restoration of the Stormont Executive and the rolling out of the type of mitigation schemes we have seen previously in relation to welfare reform and the pandemic.  Within this framework – of informal social partnership – the trade union leadership see themselves as acting as lobbyists on behalf of the working class.

Despite the militant rhetoric from some of the platform speakers there is no sense that the trade unions are moving into an oppositional stance. This has been the case since 2015 when ICTU endorsed the Fresh Start Agreement – yet another plan for stabilising the Stormont Executive which had a programme of austerity (public sector job losses, welfare reform etc) attached to it.  Peter Bunting, ICTU’s northern general secretary at that time, justified the endorsement on the basis “that having a major oppositional campaign against our own politicians was catastrophic in the long term for us."

This continues to be the position of ICTU and was restated in the numerous media appearances by its main northern spokesperson, Owen Reidy, ahead of the rally on Saturday which he characterised as a “call for Westminster to provide the necessary supports to working families and for a return of a NI Executive to roll out the necessary policies and actions to seek to address this cost-of-living crisis now.”  The trade union leadership has no intention of embarking on a serious campaign to defend workers from the impact of the rising cost of living.  Such a campaign would have the demand for wages to keep pace with inflation front and centre yet wages are barely mentioned.  The implication is that mitigation measures for the very poorest in society is the most that can be expected

However, the leadership of the trade unions are not in control of the situation.  Surging inflation means there will be pressure from below for action, including industrial action, to defend the value of wages.  The absence of devolved institutions, with no sign they will be returning, also weakens the trade union claim that Stormont can offer some relief. Such conditions, purely out of material necessity, point to increasing levels of working-class militancy.  The problem is that, without a co-ordinated strategy, industrial action is likely be restricted to different sectors at different times and its impact diminished.   If that is to change, the current trade union leadership and its attachment to the political institutions, have to be challenged.  While we are still a long way from that, there is a bubbling discontent amongst workers that will find expression in some form.  The very fact that ICTU had to call a rally, to at least be seen to be doing something, and that it wasn’t just the usual photo op for officials but a sizeable mobilisation of trade union members, is evidence for this.

While mostly made-up trade unions the rally also had political contingents from PbP, the Socialist Party and the Workers Party.     Socialist Democracy members were part of a contingent from the Belfast Anti-War group which had a banner on display and also distributed a leaflet which contrasted the huge resources going into the war in Ukraine compared to that given to relieving the cost-of-living crisis.

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