Ireland North: Health and social care workers organise in fight for 15% pay increase

Northern Ireland’s largest trade union, NIPSA, is seeking a poverty busting pay increase of £3k or 15%, whichever is highest, for each of its health service members.  NIPSA will feed its position into the health service joint trade unions for Northern Ireland, England and Wales for the formulation of a combined claim.

Just a few months on from the settlement of the last health service pay dispute in the North, the issue has begun to bubble to the surface again but this time the battle is across England and Wales, as well. Under the impact of Covid-19 anger has been building amongst health workers who are expected to put their lives on the line while getting poverty wages. Their anger, combined with massive public support, has been building to the point that the collective health trade unions Unison, NIPSA, RCN, Unite and GMB have made the unprecedented demand that the date for a new pay deal should be brought forward by 6 months. As part of that process, the unions are coming to an agreement on what pay claim to put to the government.

NIPSA branches have carried out a consultation on a range of options for the construction of the pay claim. After a robust discussion, they have settled on a combination of either 3k or 15% whichever is highest. This is designed, on the one hand, to address the urgent need to begin to lift the lowest paid health workers out of poverty, through the application of 3k, and on the other hand, ensure all others get a significant uplift through the 15% increase.

NIPSA health service Branch Secretary and Militant Left activist Tanya Killen said:

‘For health workers the logic of a claim at the level of 3k or 15% is inescapable. Currently we are paid as little as 17,800 a year, the buying power of our pay has dropped by an average of 20% since the start of austerity and the 2020 settlement meant a below inflation pay award for over 50% of Northern Ireland’s health workers. We cannot continue like this; we need a real pay rise this time’.

Tanya went on to say

‘There will be no easy victory for health workers.  Although the government is happy to give handouts to businesses to help them through this economic mess, they have made clear that they have no intention of spending money to help improve the lives of ordinary people.  They do not care that workers are in poverty.  They are hypocrites who would rather clap for health service workers than pay them a decent wage.  We are going to have to fight to get what we deserve”.

For the health unions in Northern Ireland, the starting point of this battle over pay will be last year’s dispute.  The 2019/20 strikes won significant gains for many health workers but were disappointing for the majority who, yet again, received a below-inflation pay increase that amounts to a cut in their buying power. However, it should not be forgotten that real concessions were forced from the Northern Ireland Assembly on important staffing issues.  Overall, the dispute was a significant partial victory that stands to the credit of the trade union movement. The campaign, and particularly the strike action taken by health workers, was an inspiration.  Union members were empowered and confident of their strength and in a good position to achieve their demands. They showed what can be done through a serious militant struggle that is well organised and hard-hitting. But the dispute also exposed weaknesses such as dangerous divisions between workers based on their profession and a lack of coordination between unions. Critically, the exclusion of lay members of the unions from the negotiation team meant that the views of health workers were not always heard by professional trade union leaders.

If the lessons from 2019 are absorbed, a strong vibrant union campaign is launched, and a strong membership is combined with a militant leadership, then 2020/21 could see workers beginning to take back what they have lost and achieving the pay rises they deserve.

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