NOV 30: The North of Ireland flexes its muscles with public sector strike

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While between 2 and 3 million struck in Britain, in the North of Ireland about 200,000 people took part in the Public Sector  strike action on 30th November. Schools and civil service offices were shut, as were job centres and council services. Rail and bus services were non-existent. Union members held marches, pickets, and rallies throughout the country over the issue of pensions. The main rally took place in Belfast city centre, where around 15,000 gathered and several thousands spread over Craigavon, Omagh, Armagh, Ballymena, Derry and other towns.

Every public sector trade union, particularly UNISON, NIPSA, INTO and Unite, was represented, as well as a number of RCN members who weren't on strike but took part in the demonstration. The scale of the strike and of the demonstration was dramatic, with far greater numbers participating in the demonstrations than on 26th March and October 5th. A wide variety of political parties and groups were represented as well.

There was not a sign of sectarianism on this day of industrial action. Catholic workers marched next to Protestant workers. In fact, this was probably the most encouraging sign of the day: the feeling of unity and sense that we are fighting a common enemy. It is clear that there is no consensus about just precisely who or what this enemy is, let alone what to do about it, but the important thing is that the debate has started. Predictably, that debate in the media was dominated by anti-union acolytes and “opinion makers”. Nevertheless, unions like UNISON managed to make their voice heard in the media, and more importantly, in the streets.

Peter Bunting, Assistant General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, told a rally at Belfast City Hall that public sector workers should be commended. He said they had made a sacrifice to help everyone by striking on Wednesday:

"The real extremists in our society are those who evade and avoid tax, those who have gambled billions with other peoples' money to sate their greed, and those politicians who have decreed that ordinary people, private sector workers, public sector workers and the most vulnerable of all - the unemployed, the sick, women and children, and senior citizens - will pay for the criminal conduct of the pampered elite".

People don’t go on strike for a whim. But when pushed with your back against the wall, unless you take a stand you will suffer the consequences. As Mark Serwotka, head of the PCS union, explained quite eloquently on Newsnight the other day, it is the government that refuses to engage in any meaningful negotiations, so what alternative do working people have but to make use of the only weapon left to them? Workers have been forced into this action in order to counter serious threats to their terms and conditions of employment and the future of vital public services. This is a clear message to the Tory and Liberal Democrat Government in Westminster and the Assembly parties in the North. 

The trade unions must understand what is at stake. However encouraging the industrial action was, this is about more than just pensions. It is about jobs, wages and services. The cuts are not a “choice” by some evil Tories in London, but they are a direct result of an economic system that is now wreaking havoc all over the world by asking for its pound of flesh. While the Celtic tiger in the 26 counties has long been killed off and sacrificed on the altar of capitalist henchmen, the crisis has well and truly landed in the North. After the worldwide bailing out of the banks, private debt has been transformed into public debt, with the ordinary working man and woman left to pick up the tab.

A serious consideration in the North also is the role of Sinn Féin who, while opposing the cuts publically, are presiding over massive cuts in Stormont. As the INTO placards so eloquently put it:

  • Stormont
  • Taking
  • Our
  • Pensions

Now is the time to build on the mood of discontent and to widen the struggle. A 24 hour general strike would be an important step forward and action should be stepped up to involve both private and public sector workers.

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