Workers accept pay offers, but new battlelines ahead!

WORKERS in public transport, health, education and the civil service headed to the picket lines numerous times throughout the last two years which culminated in the largest public sector strike action across the North in a generation on the 18th January. Was this joint public sector strike the major turning point that forced the hand of the DUP to end their boycott? This was an important factor in doing so, but whilst the backdrop reason to the action taken fully laid the blame at the Secretary of State for NI’s feet due to the “punishment budget” he had set, public sector workers were acutely aware that they were being used as a political football to bring about a restoration of the NI Executive.

By William Brooks

WORKERS in public transport, health, education and the civil service headed to the picket lines numerous times throughout the last two years which culminated in the largest public sector strike action across the North in a generation on the 18th January. Was this joint public sector strike the major turning point that forced the hand of the DUP to end their boycott? This was an important factor in doing so, but whilst the backdrop reason to the action taken fully laid the blame at the Secretary of State for NI’s feet due to the “punishment budget” he had set, public sector workers were acutely aware that they were being used as a political football to bring about a restoration of the NI Executive.

With Stormont operational again the trade unions were advised that, even with the backdrop of a cost of living crisis, the budget set by the Tory Government would not fully cover their pay claims. Pay budget and spending figures were revealed to be inadequate; initially the figure brought forward was £568 million, which soon was revised, following pressure from ICTU representatives adding a further £100 million. This was still short of the pay claims the individual unions had made before the industrial action and equated to a 5% increase on pay scales and a 1 off non-consolidated payment of £1500 for Civil Servants and very similar offers were made to health and translink workers. Health workers will not see their pay restored to parity with English health workers, an important victory won in 2019, which was also an impetus for the return of Stormont then. With the exception of Translink and the RCN the offers were accepted, following consultative meetings with members.

In the RCN, an important reason for the rejection alongside the lack of recommendation from leadership was the lack of extra investment in the health service which is at crisis point. Members across the unions were still feeling aggrieved by the offer falling short of what they deserved and what was needed to maintain the vital services they fulfill but they were also hesitant to express the position of outright rejection, for example, many thousands of NICS workers couldn’t remember the last time they had received an offer of 5%, this mainly due to years of austerity under the Tories, but also the last period under New Labour.

Members felt they would rather accept and take what was offered over the uncertainty of rejection without the expectation that the offer would be imposed in full. This is understandable, particularly where in general there was no alternative strategy put forward to escalate the action, despite the fact that Stormont’s return makes it a clear target for pressure. A reflection of this volatility is reflected in the failure of the education minister to implement pay and grading because of a lack of money available for the next financial year. Education unions are correctly preparing for a new round of strikes.

Upcoming campaigns can bring about a pay-offer that beats inflation and redresses the historical pay-offers that have caused members to lose upwards of 20% of real terms wages in the past 15 years. Workers now have a short breathing space to consider how we can move forward, including at NIPSA conference at the end of May.

This Includes:

We must call on NIC-ICTU to effectively oppose all regressive anti-worker “revenue raising measures” , NIC-ICTU must continue to raise the demands for a needs based budget to the media and at the negotiating table.

The Executive parties must be challenged to issue needs based budgets, regardless of Stormont’s budget allocation. Many unions are reporting the increase of membership which shows the desire for new and young workers. We have to seek to organise and harness including addressing particular challenges of a large pool of agency staff.

The Trade Unions need to harness this for any industrial action going forward, the previous campaign of strikes was widely supported by the working class communities who rely most on the services that it provides and further work to bring together community groups and other interested anti-cuts groups together to put real pressure on the NI executive.

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