Ireland North: Public sector workers strike against austerity

For a second day of strike action in the run-up to the May general election!

Friday 13 March saw tens of thousands of workers in education, health, civil services and, importantly, public transport, take part in coordinated strike action against a Stormont austerity agenda.

The action involved Nipsa, the largest union in the North, the teachers’ union Into, Unite, Unison and the GMB, against a backdrop of anti-union propaganda in the local press. Union busting tactics were used against ambulance workers on the day – management declaring a ‘state of emergency’ in order to stop workers striking!

However, the strike was overwhelming supported by the population. An opinion poll on the Belfast telegraph website put support for the strike at 82%!

U-turn

The political effect of the strike was seen on the Monday before, when Sinn Féin did a U-turn on welfare reform. They accused their government colleagues, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), of acting in bad faith and not implementing measures necessary to protect the vulnerable.

The real reason was summed up by a Belfast Telegraph commentator: “Maybe it has dawned on the party [Sinn Féin] that in slashing services and triggering massive strike action later this week it is now the target of the unions and the workers.”

Sinn Féin, who are not in principle opposed to ‘welfare reform’, i.e. cuts, fears being exposed for implementing vicious austerity in the North, thereby damaging their image as an ‘anti-austerity’ party in the South.

This all serves to underline the weak nature of the Northern Ireland assembly. It has not just been Sinn Féin but also the DUP which has been forced back from austerity measures when faced with a determined protest movement.

Socialist Party members where out on force on the day, joining the marches and visiting picket lines, not just in Belfast but in Derry, Newry, Enniskillen, Craigavon, Magherafelt, Cookstown and Dungannon. Our members distributed 10,000 leaflets to build for the strike action.

We also distributed almost 10,000 leaflets on the day and sold over 250 copies of our strike paper.

Where next?

In several key unions, Socialist Party members played an important role putting pressure on trade union leaders and officials to ensure strike ballots were won and the strike was enthusiastically built for.

Socialist Youth members were to the forefront in campaigning to get young people to join the strike – including mobilising college students to join the marches, and in Queens University organising a referendum where 87% of students voted to take strike action.

On the picket lines, the key question on people’s minds was, where next? Unfortunately, the answer largely received from the speakers’ platform in Belfast would have left them disappointed. Shockingly, the trade union official chairing the rally said: “People always ask, where next? To that I say to the cafes and pubs”!

This lack of serious intent was a million miles removed from the Socialist Party, whose material on the day declared: “Name the next strike date.”

The key issue now is to ensure that 13 March is not a one-off event but the opening shot in a campaign that can stop Stormont implementing its austerity agenda.

Socialist Party members in the unions are campaigning for a second day of strike action in the run-up to the general election. If the current trade union leaders are not prepared to do this, then union activists must organise to make them do it.

Linked to this is the urgent task of building a new party of protestant and catholic workers that can challenge the establishment parties in Stormont that have nothing to offer but division and poverty.

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