Strike action resumes in the North
06 October 2023
Strike rally in Belfast (22/09/23).
After a lull over the summer months, trade unions in Northern Ireland have relaunched industrial action over the issue of pay. During the last two weeks there have been strikes across the public sector involving health service workers, civil servants and university and college staff. There was also strike action by journalists at the National World group and by workers at Craigavon based glass manufacturer Vista Therm. These strikes involved thousands of workers, and in terms of numbers, were the most significant industrial action to take place in the last ten years. The current round of action reached its height on the 22nd of September when a lot of the strikes coincided. A support rally in Belfast city centre also took place that day. This week has seen votes for strike action by more groups of workers within the health and education sectors.
All of this gives the impression of a growing militancy amongst workers in the North. However, it would be wrong to exaggerate what is happening. As stated earlier this round of industrial action comes five months after previous strikes which were similarly lasted one or two days. The number of workers involved is growing quite slowly but the level of action is still relatively low. It is at a much lower level than the industrial action that has been taking place in GB over the last year. The strikes in the North have more the character of a protest than a sustained campaign.
This reflects the perspective of the trade union leadership which was, and continues to be, based on the assumption of the restoration of the Stormont Executive. In this framework, public spending cuts and pay suppression are just partially tactics by the British to force the DUP back into government. Allied to this is the assumption of a financial package forthcoming from the British Treasury that would enable a new executive to go some way in addressing the issues around collapsing public services and public sector pay. This is the preferred scenario for trade union leaders who see themselves as partners of the government rather than any sort of opposition. However, this position has become more difficult to maintain with the restoration of devolved institutions looking unlikely in the short term. In response trade unions are desperately flailing around trying to make themselves relevant. This has seen a ratcheting up of militant rhetoric, with one trade union official talking up the prospect of a “general strike”. Talk of Stormont has largely receded with all the emphasis now on the evils of Tory government at Westminster. However, the rhetoric is not matched by action, which remains largely in protest mode.
The stance of the trade unions was in full display at the rally in Belfast on the 22nd of September. In typical trade union fashion, the platform was packed with officials explaining the reasons why their members were on strike. The most political speech of the event came from NIPSA general secretary Carmel Gates. She once again put forward the idea that the British government was using workers as “political football” as part of some wider strategy. In a similar vein she also said that Northern Ireland was being subjected to a “sanctions budget” by the Secretary of State. This led her to the claim that the strikes taking place were the “most political” she had known in her lifetime. The reasoning was that the trade union movement was filling a political vacuum left by a lack of government: “It’s a political strike because we are in a complete vacuum in politics. No assembly, and we’ve got a Secretary of State who’s sitting back like a colonial ruler,” she said. “There’s actually nobody taking the decisions and that means there’s nobody running politics and that means that it’s up to us to challenge the Tories.” (An unstated inference of this is that industrial action would not be taking place if the devolved institutions were in place). In terms of strikes she said that they would keep getting “bigger and better” until pay demands were met.
The impression created by this is a turn by the trade union movement in the North towards a more militant and political stance. However, a closer examination of the rhetoric reveals continuing illusions around Stormont. The trade unions are in no way an oppositionist movement. They have backed every previous deal to revive Stormont, including Fresh Start (2015) and New Decade New Approach (2020), which explicitly incorporated austerity programmes. Despite the claims of individual officials, the collective voice of trade unions, as represented by the Northern Committee of ICTU, have made their position very clear. They want Stormont back, whatever the cost to workers. On the particular issues of pay and public services they do not oppose cuts and privatisation and they do not call for wages to keep pace with inflation. What they want is for the British government to provide funding to a restored Stormont Executive that would allow some mitigations. ICTU reiterated this once again just before the latest round of strike action when they put out a statement calling for Stormont’s debt to be written off and for a fund to be created to support the transformation of public services. Given that the phrase “transformation of public services” is always a code for privatisation it can only be assumed that ICTU have completely bought into this.
The trade union leadership finds itself in a difficult position because its perspectives have proved to be bogus. Firstly, Stormont is not coming back anytime soon if at all. Secondly, even if it does, there will be no financial package forthcoming from the British Treasury to provide a fig leaf of mitigations. The proposals from the SoS on funding for the North, which revolves around spending cuts, privatisation, regionalised pay and increased taxes and charges, aren’t a negotiating tactic but a programme of neoliberal reforms. The fact that the NIO is now carrying out consultation on its proposal shows that the British government is serious about pressing ahead with this. Moreover, it is the programme not only of the Tories, but also of Labour and of any future local administration.
Workers in the north are facing an unprecedented onslaught on their living and working conditions. And while union leaders make empty threats about a general strike; it would actually take something approaching a general strike, of politicised industrial action, to push back against this. It is a huge task but anything less would be completely inadequate.