Support the health workers strike:What will be needed to implement real pay rises

UNISON HEALTH members in NI will be walking out in a further 48 hour strike on 21 and 22 September. Other unions are joining this action both in health and beyond to fight derisory or non-existent pay offers. Previous health strikes have received near total support and extreme popularity in contrast to the politicians both here and London who stand in their way. 

The huge strike wave that began in 2022 in the private and public sector to fight wage suppression has entered a new and more complicated stage both in Britain and Northern Ireland. The shortcomings of the present trade union leadership can only be overcome by more developed rank and file organising — a powerful escalation and a broadening of action can emanate from this to force the Tory government and bosses back.

 So far transport, important manufacturing and processing workplaces have achieved historic high wage increases (although few have actually been able to get inflation beating pay awards). Within Britain strikes are now likely again within the rail and health service amongst Junior and Senior Doctors, with the majority of the regional disputes still unresolved in the ambulance and nursing sectors. While some disputes have dragged on with a combination of the employers digging in and unprepared union leaderships unsuccessfully attempting to implement poor deals (the RCN leadership’s recommended pay deal was rejected en masse by members). 

Co-ordinated, unapologetic and effective industrial action required 

A fighting leadership is necessary that is based on the direct involvement of members in their own disputes – workplace meetings that take strike decisions, a targeted campaign of effective industrial action and no closed-room, secret negotiations. If this isn’t happening workers will have real questions about how serious their own leaders are to successfully wage these struggles.

 Like health workers here, the Education Authority, Civil Service and some local councils workers face the constant refrain that due to the lack of a Stormont Executive nothing can be done. This must be by now a thoroughly discredited myth. It’s clear when the Secretary of State is pressured money has been found to make pay offers in the Housing Executive and the derisory offer of £552 to civil servants at the start of the year. He has plenty of decision making power to threaten the entire population here with brutal austerity measures. There is no excuse for not giving health and public sector workers an inflation plus pay rise.

 Bosses in the private as well as the public sector have claimed either poverty or that their hands are tied by a myriad of legal protections and niceties. This has not been accepted by unions in these scenarios so whether there’s a functioning local government or not, the trade union movement shouldn’t accept it here. Unions can put their demands to the Secretary of State and use strike and public protest campaigns involving service users and supporters to bring huge pressure to bear on the government to act. 

At the same time there is a targeted campaign to deal with previous “budget overspends” which is a new cover to implement significant austerity policies in the absence and possibly on behalf of an absent Stormont Executive. Important protests have arisen against this including a consultation to end or restrict access to free bus passes. Pensioners, health service users, students and many more are all being looked at as targets to make significant cuts. The trade union movement must link their workplace struggles to these issues. Significant strike action linking these issues can be a new front in the coordination of struggles to fight wage suppression and cuts to desperately needed public services. When we struggle collectively these campaigns can be greater than the sum of their parts and unite workers and the general public to take on the Tories and the bosses.

By Paddy Meehan

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