Ireland North: District council workers vote to fight attacks on pay and conditions

SPTU and Unite union workers on a joint picket in Ireland

Members of the SIPTU, NIPSA, Unite and GMB trade unions at Newry, Mourne and Down District Council, in Northern Ireland, are preparing for battle. The council have full authority over the pay and terms and conditions of council workers. It has launched a brutal attack. This includes attempts to remove trade union facility time, cut workers’ pay by up to £2500, reduce voluntary severance terms and introduce a so-called job evaluation process which opens the door to further attacks on pay.

Members of all four unions have responded to this Thatcherite attack with a vote for strike action and action short of strike action. The council bosses are already under pressure – it is time to force them back. A well-planned strategy is necessary to win a victory for the workers. Union members must, with the assistance of union officials, democratically decide and control the fight back. Action is needed that not only kicks off strongly but also makes it clear that the unions are serious about winning this fight; that they are prepared to escalate, if necessary. While SIPTU is the decisive union in the dispute, it is vital that the strategy must seek to bring all council workers on board, including those who voted against action and those who did not vote at all. In addition, the strategy must recognise the need to organise to overcome any difficulties caused by Covid-19 working from home arrangements. Such an approach can bring council services grinding to a halt, bringing the council bosses under pressure and, critically, force the Newry, Mourne and Down councillors to retreat.

Political action

The politicians must not be allowed to get away with their usual game. Verbally supporting the workers but not using their powers to change the direction of the council. The Sinn Fein/Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) nationalist bloc has an absolute majority. In this case, workers’ action can force these parties to change things.

Newry and Mourne is not the only council in Northern Ireland that is taking an aggressive anti-worker stance. The Northern Ireland councils appear to have entered into a race to the bottom. For example, Antrim and Newtownards council is also attacking workers. In that case, the political/sectarian makeup is almost exactly the opposite to Newry, Mourne and Down. It is under Democratic Unionist Party/Ulster Unionist Party unionist-control. From the point of view of the interests of the working class, the colour of the council (‘orange’ or ‘green’) makes little difference. Both are attacking workers’ livelihoods. What really matters is where the councillors stand on ‘class’ issues, such as pay, terms and conditions and protection of public services.

Council workers cannot rely on the current political parties. What is needed is a new party of the working class that rejects the politics of poverty and privatisation. One that puts the interests of council workers, and the working class, first.

NHS workers – from clapping to clamping

Militant Left interviewed Royal Victoria Hospital (west Belfast) Unite union rep, Darren McDonagh, about the recent protest of NHS staff against the introduction of clamping workers’ cars in the Royal Victoria Hospital car park.

ML: In your opinion, is clamping an attack on health service workers?
DMcD: Yes, it absolutely is. We had to strike to win pay parity last year and now we are being charged for parking.
Privatisation is being implemented here. A private company is pursuing staff with fixed penalty notices and clamping staff cars in the pursuit of profits and all at a financial cost to low paid NHS workers.
ML: How did the protest go?
DMcD: The protest went very well. Considering I was only contacted by the media late the day before, and only got word out the night before through social media, turnout was very good.
Staff are very frustrated and angry. They clearly demonstrated that in the protest. Many workers attended who have already received parking penalty notices, as did those who have had their vehicles clamped.
Many cited they cannot afford this extra financial burden especially in the mouth of Christmas. Staff are already stressed coming to work with the COVID-19 pandemic.
ML: I think it would help if other unions support your campaign, what’s your thoughts on that?
DMcD: The more involvement with the campaign the better and certainly the more trade unions get involved the better – our members are our union. We have already agreed and started our next step in this campaign, which is to get as many staff and members of the public as possible to inundate our Health minister Robin Swann and call on him to intervene as soon as possible. Members should email to object.
ML: What next in the campaign?
DMcD: Any help or assistance is greatly appreciated. We will be meeting again although given the current situation with the COVID-19 pandemic this is difficult. But some ideas, such as a petition were discussed today, as was contacting other politicians and local councils to put pressure on them.
The workers’ protest received coverage in BelfastLive.

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November 2020