Despite efforts by Stormont politicians and many in the Northern Ireland media to vilify them, Northern Ireland Water service workers engaged in industrial action were able to win significant concessions from management, leading to a suspension of their action on Tuesday 20 January, pending a ballot on the new offer.
The industrial dispute was a ’worktorule’ – with hundreds of workers refusing any overtime and sticking strictly to their contractual obligations – which commenced on 23 December 2014. This action followed a unilateral push by management to force workers to pay a dramatically higher contribution to their pensions – effectively a pay cut – from April, this year. More than 1,000 workers represented by three unions, Nipsa, Unite and GMB, were involved in the industrial action.
While workers had voluntarily committed to respond to emergency situations over Christmas, this was rescinded on 4th January in the face of continued bad faith from management. As a result of weather related breakdowns and the ongoing dispute, some rural communities in counties Fermanagh, Tyrone and Derry experienced disruption to their water supply – resulting in a few extreme cases with families without water and heating for a six day period. This was seized upon by the media and politicians to demonise the workers but they held firm.
The pressure was building on Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy, as other Members of the Legislative Assembly from Sinn Fein and Democratic Unionist Party (the ruling parties in Northern Ireland’s powersharing Executive) played politics with the dispute to attack Kennedy. But the fact is the dispute was caused by financial policies agreed by all the Executive parties. Amid mounting calls for his resignation, the Minister was forced to put pressure on NI Water management to make concessions they had bitterly resisted, resulting in a deal which unions felt they could feasibly put to their members.
This victory is another example of the power of workers to resist and defeat attacks from the bosses when they stand united and use their industrial power effectively. To do otherwise is to accept the logic of an endless ‘race to the bottom’ in pay, terms and conditions. The attacks on NI Water workers are aimed at paving the way for allout privatisation of the service and, therefore, the introduction of water charges. NI Water was turned into a company some years ago, as a prelude to attempted privatisation but remains state owned.
This is a victory for all workers and should act as an inspiration to all those preparing for industrial action on 13th March, when unions in Northern Ireland are due to show their opposition to a wave of deep cuts introduced by the powersharing Assembly.