Workers’ are being used as pawns in the Stormont talks. Heaton-Harris and the Tories in Westminster are leveraging vital pay increases and funding for services as a stick to beat the Stormont parties. We must be clear: workers cannot be cynically used as bargaining chips by the political establishment here or in Westminster. The funding is available to alleviate both immediate issues while also expanding our public services and granting inflation proof pay increases. It is being deliberately withheld.
By Sean Burns, originally posted on socialistpartyni.org
The strike action on January 18 is the biggest day of coordinated strike action in years, with many thousands of workers across the public sector taking part. It must send a strong message that we will not be held hostage for Stormonts dysfunction! We need a real, determined and well organised campaign for inflation busting pay rises, not the timid approach of the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (NIC-ICTU), who have called days of action here and there but so far has failed to organise the type of sustained action necessary to win.
Pay is a major issue. Workers in Northern Ireland are paid less than workers in Britain. The inflationary crisis hit harder here than anywhere else on these islands. The typical full time public sector worker in Northern Ireland saw their real pay fall over 7% in 2023 alone. Even the small pay increases won in Britain have not been implemented here.. Many of the unions are demanding pay parity as part of the strike action. This is an important demand but parity cannot be the ceiling. Even with getting pay increases in line with Britain, workers here will still be struggling to make ends meet. Household bills have soared over the past few years particularly in essentials like food and energy. House prices and rents have also exploded with Northern Ireland having the highest rate of private rent increases anywhere in the UK. Between March 2022-2023 they rose by 9.9%. Going beyond parity we must demand inflation-proof pay increases for all workers.
Strike for services
Our public services are in crisis. From health to education every sector is facing the reality of decades of underfunding now reaching a critical point. Schools across Northern Ireland are struggling to pay bills and maintain services. In health about 122,000 patients are awaiting surgery and 378,400 are waiting to see a consultant for the first time. GP surgeries are closing in many places. The only reason sectors like health and education have not collapsed is because of the commitment of staff to deliver their service. But as the Royal College of Midwives put it:
“Maternity services in Northern Ireland cannot continue to run on the goodwill of our hard working members. Goodwill does not pay the bills”
There is a huge amount of wealth and resources in our society to provide services that are needed and pay workers a living wage. UK billionaires boast a combined wealth of £684 billion, which makes the £3.2 billion on offer for Stormont’s restoration seem paltry in comparison. One in every seven of those billionaires is resident in a tax haven. The problem is who controls that wealth and as long as this huge amount of wealth rests in the hands of the super-rich, working people will pay the price and these resources which could resolve all of the crises in our public services will instead continue to fund the obscene luxurious lifestyles of the 1% elite
No honeymoon for Stormont parties
The prospect of Stormont returning should be understood for what it is – a clear target for action. There should be no illusion that a return of Stormont would resolve the issues working-class people face. All of the Stormont parties have continually acted in the interests of big business and in opposition to working-class people. While in the executive the Stormont parties imposed a miserly 3% pay rise on health workers during the pandemic – well below inflation at that time – and voted against a 10% rent cut in the context of soaring rents. Alliance have also articulated support for “revenue raising” measures like water charges which would be another tax burden on working-class people.
Build beyond January 18th
We need a sustained campaign of action whether the target has to be Stormont, Westminster or both. One day alone is not enough. It must mark the opening shot of a campaign of sustained, co-ordinated, well-planned and escalating action in our workplaces and communities. The momentum from January 18th cannot be run into the ground. Unfortunately NIC-ICTU have not been at the races in developing the strike movement. They have focused on appealing to the politicians and urging inaction from members rather than capitalising on the momentum and strength that workers have. They have attempted to do the impossible – bring sufficient pressure to bear to win pay rises and funding while minimising the impact on services and disruption to the public. The simple truth is our services and workforces are already at breaking point – that is what is risking patient lives or leading to inadequate service delivery. Workers are not responsible for this and there is no other choice but to strike. The time for tokenistic days of action has long passed. The unions should immediately call further days of strike action in the short term. This must be part of a programme of escalating action including longer strikes and further coordinated action by NIC-ICTU with private sector workers facing similar pay restraint. As part of this a Northern Ireland wide general strike to save our public services is a necessary step.
Importantly, if NIC-ICTU don’t do this, we cannot leave it at that. Building a sustained campaign beyond January 18 will require organisation from below. If NIC- ICTU will not organise then workers in dispute must come together across sectors and begin building such a campaign, by establishing joint shop steward committees and committees of action (involving rank and file trade union activists and representatives from local communities) to coordinate strikes and public demonstrations to mobilise all working class people across the sectarian divide to fight for our public services. This should include pressuring the leaderships of individual unions to co-operate in and across sectors.
The crisis in Stormont shows that left to the establishment, politics will always be riddled with sectarianism and workers will continue to be expected to pay the price. We cannot afford to restrict our fight to the industrial field and must also fight politically. We need to build a party of mass struggle for workers, which can unite people across the sectarian divide and fight on all issues affecting workers and young people. That also requires a struggle for socialist change. Discussing these points and tactics is an urgent priority in unions, workplaces and our communities. Contact us today if you’d like to speak to the Socialist Party about this.