The strike by workers in the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) on 26th July was the largest industrial action seen here since March 2015. Thousands of members of the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA) walked out in a show of anger and disgust over their treatment by the NICS. The anger felt by civil servants is as a result of a combination of issues which together have become the straw that broke the camel’s back.
For nearly a decade, civil servants have received below-inflation pay increases which has meant that workers have seen their real wages eroded by between 15% and 20%. What used to be regarded as a decent job is now among the lowest paid employment here. The majority of civil servants now earn less than the NI average wage and 66% earn less than the UK average. The latest pay award, which was imposed on workers in July, was a miserly 1.25%, while inflation is running at more than 2%. But, shamefully, the Department of Finance had to give the lowest paid workers an award of 3% just to bring them above the minimum wage. Many civil servants rely on tax credits, credit card debt and second jobs just to make ends meet.
To add insult to injury, and without consultation with NIPSA, the NICS has proceeded to an external recruitment campaign for posts that are normally available to existing staff through promotion. On top of that, the Department of Finance is attempting to make changes to terms and conditions which will add significantly to line managers’ responsibility.
July 26 strike only the beginning
NIPSA members are well aware that this will be a hard fight but it would be difficult to overestimate the depth of the anger felt by the workers. The one day of strike action taken in July was hugely successful, despite being at the height of the leave season, but it was just the beginning. More strike action is planned in the coming weeks, as well as protest action and selective action by key groups of staff.
With a no-deal Brexit scenario looming, the role of civil servants, particularly in the absence of an Assembly, will be critical. As part of the ‘action short of strike action’, NIPSA has asked members not to volunteer for the contingency and coordination planning. Many members who had already volunteered have now withdrawn their offer of service, leaving the NICS with insufficient staff to deal with potential emergencies. These workers have rightly decided that they should no longer volunteer for duties with an employer that is treating them with contempt.
It is clear that the NICS and the Department of Finance Permanent Secretary, Sue Gray, have seriously underestimated the strength of feeling and the determination of NIPSA members and activists. If NIPSA ramps up its industrial action planning, with the organisation of strike committees in local areas and with the development of a strategy and tactics to take the dispute through to Christmas and into the new year, then this shambles of a Tory government can be forced to blink first.