From Irish Political Review: August 2008

The Strike

Public Service workers were involved in the first strike action over pay in Northern Ireland for 30 years on the 16th and 17th of July. The industrial action was mainly taken by workers in local Councils, although due to the sectarian nature of society, some of the workers who went on strike were employed in Agencies, such as the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the Library Service (which in a non sectarian state of affairs would be under the control of Local Government.)

All of the Unions had made an opening claim of 6%. The final pay offer made by the management side was a rise of 2.45% on all pay points, effective from the 1st April 2008 for a 12 month period. It has to be added that there was a slight bottom loading of the offer, with the very low paid being offered 3.31%. However the benefit this offered was more apparent than real, in that these pay scales are so low that in most Councils Unions have been able to lift the lowest paid above these grades. A serious attempt to help the lower paid, especially in difficult times, would be a flat money increase of the kind that was implemented in the days of the Social Contract.

The management sides position was that the 2.45% offer was the limit it could afford, without more funding from central government or a rise on the rates. The Union side has argued that this offer did not take into account efficiency savings and the amounts which are spent on agency staff—and in any case that the workers had already accepted a below inflation pay rise in the previous year.

The Unions involved in the strike action were NIPSA, UNITE, SIPTU and Unison. The GMB voted to accept the pay offer. The Unions which voted in favour of industrial action did so in a ratio of about 3 to 1. The curious thing about the GMB is that their ballot came out at 4 to 1 against, and being the second largest Union covering Public Service Workers, this made the strike to say the least problematic. Indeed the management side has been quick to point this out— for example see the comments made by Jimmy Spratt who is the employers' representative form Northern Ireland at the pay talks.

On this point It would be my personal view, as a GMB steward employed in Belfast City Council, that the above ballots came out as they did because NIPSA, UNITE, SIPTU and Unison actively campaigned for a rejection of the pay offer whereas the GMB took a more passive role. (It did hold a national conference of public service stewards to take the temperature, which appears to have concluded that the grass roots were angry but not angry enough to engage in industrial action). Following on from this the GMB went through the motions, merely informing members in the ballot information that this was the final offer and anything else would require them to vote for industrial action. When has democracy been passive? At least the leadership could have given a view of the likely consequences of accepting or rejecting. My Branch did take a position to reject the offer and most of our members took that advice and voted accordingly.

The pay negotiations take place in England and are between Local Government Employers (with the management side in the Northern Ireland being represented on the Local Government Employers' side) and the Union side represented by GMB, Unite and Unison. The Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance, NIPSA, has only an observer role. The all-Ireland Union, SIPTU, has no status at all. These pay talks apply to Local Government workers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. (Scotland has separate arrangements emanating from devolution, and pay negotiations there are happening as I write— the outcome will undoubtedly be carefully watched and noted by one and all. This perhaps says something about the status of our wee circus at Stormont when it comes down to economics.)

So what is the big issue that caused a strike over pay for the first time in 30 years? Simply the pay deal in relation to what is happening in the rest of the economy and who feels the pain. The previous year, the deal the Unions agreed to was below inflation. And with this year's final offer being again below inflation, the mood within the membership of the above named Unions was simply—enough is enough.

This year (according to the Labour Research Department) pay claims in the private sector were coming in at a median average of 4% in the three months leading up to May. This must be compared to inflation in the economy running at 3.3% according to the Consumer Price Index (central government's preferred measure, which ignores things like the cost of housing and rates) or 4.3%, according to the alternative Retail Price Index (which includes housing and rates).

Add to the above the greed which caused the so called credit crunch and a growing resentment surrounding the pay awards management award themselves. People may have become conditioned to the type of awards senior managers in the private sector award themselves but public service workers strongly resent managers in the state sector wanting to join in with this practice. The fact is, while the workforce is offered 2.45%, Chief Executives and Directors in Councils are giving themselves a 16% pay rise. The issue was obvious and there was a feeling that they needed to make a point.

On this point it could be said that, if the Trade Unions were the agency which were out of control in the 70s, perhaps it is management which is the agency out of control now—aided and abetted by the political class.

Will our home grown version prove me wrong? The only Council where local politicians turned out to support the strikers was, of all places, Lisburn.

So was the Strike effective? According to the Local Government Association (the employers' side) press release on the 16th July, 300,000 workers were on strike across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with the North East and North West of England being the areas where there was the most disruption. By the 17th July the Association was claiming that the Strike was failing.

In many ways numbers miss the point, in that it is not specifically the number of workers who withdraw their labour but the type of workers who withdraw their labour that counts.

Here in Northern Ireland the effectiveness of the action was patchy, with Belfast and Derry being where the strike was the most effective with most of the key services affected.

In Belfast in particular all of the key services were restricted even though there were significant numbers of people who attended work—not just GMB members I might add.

The reason for the effectiveness in Belfast was simple— enough workers came out of key services and the Trade Unions worked together. For example, the local stewards in the GMB, though not officially involved in the dispute, managed to negotiate an agreement with management that, if any of their members felt they could not cross picket lines as a matter of conscience, they would not be disciplined. This was the only area in Local Government where this was done. The advice that went out from GMB centrally was for the workers who felt threatened to report to the employer if they felt their safety was compromised—solidarity, brothers and sisters!

This did help the action in Belfast to be effective. This dispute overall is unlikely to succeed I fear. Whilst there is the will to act among sections of the workforce, in particular the lower-paid, there were still many workers of all Unions and none who went to work.

When this is set alongside the fact that one of the main Unions is not engaged in the action and New Labour's never ending love affair with all things pro-business and pro-capital, coupled with an antipathy or even embarrassment over wage labour—even with the public support which is there at present—there simply is not the momentum to make anything other than a symbolic stand this year. The case is essentially a deserving one but as the saying goes, deserve got nothing to do with it!

I have no idea where they go to from here. There is more industrial action planned but, if commonsense prevails, management will need to find a way of getting itself off the hook, with a view to getting it right next year—next year's pay talks are due soon.

Ultimately the Unions need to get back to basics—they need to forge a meaningful unity between themselves. Without Union unity these actions are always likely to fail—deserving or otherwise. In addition the Unions who have been funding the New Labour project need to seriously ensure they get more bangs for their bucks—the Warwick Talks begin On July 25th where the Unions in Great Britain will be entering talks with New Labour—they need to come away with real commitments which are meaningful to the average worker. In particular should be a demand for a living wage, not a minimum wage.

Finally, in my view, the Unions need to forget about mass action—rather they need to develop a robust strategy with targeted actions when it comes down to industrial action—bringing out key workers at key times—the current dispute was not a total fiasco because those workers who did come out were in frontline services.

As for the Trade Unionists here in Northern Ireland: fair play to one and all who did come out—taking into account the above and the fact that members here reside in that twilight world which has been eloquently described in this publication over the years.

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