Industrial action continues in the north
29 January 2024
Trade union rally at Belfast City Hall (18/01/24).
While industrial action has been ongoing in the North for almost a year it saw a significant escalation this month with a one-day strike across the public sector. Teachers, nurses, bus and train drivers, police staff and civil servants are among up to 170,000 public sector workers who walked out in one of the largest strikes ever seen in the North. Sixteen trade unions were involved in co-ordinated action. Parades and rallies took place across the region including in towns and cities such as Belfast, Derry, Enniskillen and Omagh.
The primary focus of the strike was public sector pay in the North which has fallen in value and also diverged from other parts of the UK. Public sector pay has fallen sharply in real terms over the last two years due to high inflation and budget cuts. According to official data the typical public sector worker in the North saw the real value of their pay fall by more than 4% between April 2021 and April 2022 and then by a further 7% between April 2022 and April 2023. Teachers provide a good example of these two wage trends at work. They have not had real terms pay rise for almost three years while a significant gap has opened up with teacher pay in other parts of the UK. There is now a difference of £6,000 between the wages of newly qualified teachers in GB and the North (£30,000 compared to £24,000). Complaints about pay and the general decay of public services featured prominently in the speeches made at strike rallies.
Workers as pawns?
A consistent claim made by the trade unions is that the British government is using public services and public sector pay as a pressure point to force the DUP back into the Executive. This was repeated once again by Gerry Murphy of ICTU when he told the strike rally in Belfast that public servants were “fed up with being used as political pawns in what is clearly a failed political strategy on the part of Chris Heaton-Harris”. However, such claims do not really add up. For a start, the DUP would have to be concerned about these issues for any pressure to be applied. The record shows that the DUP, which has always adopted a right-wing position not just on the constitution but across a whole range of policies, does not care about workers or the state of public services. They are not moved by the stories of hardship and distress that appear daily in the media. Moreover, the party has utter contempt for trade unions and zero sympathy for industrial action. The primary pull on the DUP is its own increasingly hardline support base.
The assumption about negotiating tactics also misreads the intent of the British government. The proposals being put forward by the Secretary of State are not scare tactics but a genuine vision of the society and economy the British government would like to see within the northern state. That means privatisation; cuts in public spending; regionalised pay; as well as increasing local taxes and charges (such as water charges and student fees). All of this is already at the stage of public consultation and is likely to form the basis of a new programme for government of a direct rule administration or a restored Stormont. The belief, promoted by trade unions and NGOs, that an Executive made up of local parties would make a difference is an illusion. Previous periods when the devolved institutions were functioning show that they follow very closely the Westminster agenda. It was under a Stormont Executive that pay parity was broken. The DUP and Sinn Fein even took the extraordinary step of handing powers back to London in order to implement “welfare reform” in the North. Stormont has not shielded workers form austerity. Indeed, on every indicator, most markedly on those related to the health service, the North is the worst performing region of the UK.
The financial package on offer for a restored Executive has been talked up, but the £3.3 billion spread over the next five years is a stand still budget at best. It is also explicitly linked to the adoption of the regressive policies mentioned above. The public sector pay element has also been exaggerated with £600m being made available to resolve pay claims covering the current financial year. This will not allow for rises that match inflation nor does it allow for pay offers in the years that follow. It certainly does not restore parity. However, this has not stopped trade union leaders calling for the government to “decouple” the funding available for public sector wages from the rest of the package and allow an award to be made. It is clear that they are looking for temporary relief that can be claimed as victory and a basis for ending the current industrial action. Despite the militant rhetoric trade union leaders are not comfortable with escalating strike action. They would much rather be sitting on a committee in Stormont and operating a northern version of social partnership. The problem for them is that this has never really been on offer with the overriding priority of Stormont being the distribution of sectarian patronage.
Working class movement
To some degree the trade unions realise this themselves as their focus has shifted from local parties to the SoS. This is reflective of growing doubts over the return of Stormont and also the recognition that the British government is the party that has political and financial power over the North. While a welcome shift it is still a long way from a political perspective that would provide the foundation for the building of a working-class movement. Some trade union leaders have claimed that by engaging in industrial action they are effectively leading an opposition. That is not true. Industrial action that is not guided by a perspective that is centred on class independence will exert very limited influence over politics and society. In the North that building up of class independence has to start with the rejection of Stormont as any sort of solution to the problems faced by workers.