Education workers on a picket line at Glenveagh & Oakwood School in Belfast (Picture: @UniteunionNI)

Hundreds of thousands of workers struck in Northern Ireland last Thursday in a huge display of workers’ collective power and unity. Cross-community picket lines buzzed as the public sector strike over pay began. The strike was underscored by anger against crumbling public services and political failure.

Around 170,000 public sector workers struck together in icy conditions. Strikers demanded better pay and pay parity with public sector workers in Britain. The Northern Ireland population is 1.9 million. That means around one in ten people took part in the strike. This shows the scale of discontent as workers took over the streets.

Workers in 16 unions came together to bring town and city centres to ­standstills. It showed the power of united action—something unions in Britain didn’t manage during the recent strike wave. Eman, a Nipsa union member at St Michael’s Primary school, slammed the government, saying, “As with all public sector workers, we know the money is there.” Joe, a teacher and NASUWT union member at Aquinas Grammar school, said, “Lots of good will of people who entered teaching enthusiastically has now been spent”.

The patience of workers has rightly run out. On picket lines, many told Socialist Worker that an escalation is needed to force the politicians back to Stormont—Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government—or get movement over pay from the Tory secretary of state.

Niall Moreland, a learning support assistant, told Socialist Worker, “The impact of the strike is huge” but “more days of action will be needed to force a real pay rise”. The striking workers are estimated to cause a loss of more than £10 ­million to the local economy. This shows the disruptive power of workers when they come together. Over 67,000 teaching ­workers took to over 200 picket lines.

The Northern Irish state has religious divisions built into it. Education is still largely divided on religious lines with a minority of integrated schools. State schools are largely Protestant. Catholic schools also receive state funding and are dominated by the middle class.

The strike showed how workers can overcome the sectarian divisions. That has to be developed, reinforced and made permanent. Some 15,000 Royal College of Nursing (RCN) union members struck for the third time in four years demanding pay parity with nurses in England.

Transport workers had already taken four days of strikes in December where they got a glimpse of their collective power in action. Striking last week, transport workers halted all bus and rail services and took to the streets. Eight hundred school workers who are members of the Unite union continue an eight-day strike which began last Wednesday.

In Belfast strikers marched from their picket lines to a rally in the city centre. Blocs formed of each union marched together. Big vibrant rallies of thousands of strikers took place in Belfast and Derry city. Rallies were also held in smaller towns Enniskillen, Omagh and Magherafelt.

Speaker after speaker from the unions repeated that no worker wanted to be out on take action. But that’s not the impression you’d get by looking around the Belfast rally, where everyone was pleased with their decision to strike. Workers were seeing the power they have, with many planning to push for their next action.

Damien Doherty, a bus driver and Unite rep, told the strike rally in Derry, “Today’s joint action across so many unions has been a long time coming and must not be a one off day of action. We must build on today and escalate our actions over the coming weeks and months. We demand as workers that our unions back us as fighting unions and build ongoing united strike action across all sectors to protect our vital public services. When you’re back at work next week, remember how mighty we were today,” Damien ended.

Also speaking at the Derry rally was Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement veteran Eamonn McCann—from the People Before Profit (PBP) group. He made the point, “There are more members of trade unions in the north of Ireland right now than all the members of political parties put together.” Crucially, the strike revealed the biggest divide in Northern Irish society—class.

In the next steps for this industrial campaign, representatives of the three public transport unions Unite, GMB and Siptu met on Friday last week to agree on their next moves. Following this, Unite members working for the roads service and the forestry service continued their action for a further six days. Bus drivers, caterers, cleaners and classroom assistants also continued their strike for a few more days.

PBP organised a post-rally meeting in Belfast of striking workers. There people spoke on the need for more strikes and to combine the trade union movement with the movement for Palestine. Pushing motions through trade unions and encouraging members to not handle Israeli goods would help deepen the movement for Palestine, bringing it into the workplace.

PBP member Gerry Carroll in the Northern Ireland Assembly said strikes can provide workers with belief in their own power to change society. He called for trade unionists to “make this place ungovernable with mass civil disobedience”. While the scale of many workers striking together is impressive, he also slammed union leaders for missing the opportunity to call further dates of action.

No more will ordinary people in NI be used as pawns in political manoeuvres

The devolved parliament Stormont hasn’t operated since the DUP toppled it to stop Sinn Fein taking the first minister’s position, and because it is opposed to Brexit trade rules. As no executive was formed by 23:59 last Thursday, the Tory Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris now has a legal duty to call an early election. But he’s pushed back this deadline several times and indicated he has no plans to call an election. In advance of the strike, parents of children with special education needs (SEN) protested outside DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson’s office. 

They were in full support of the strikes calling for him to restart Stormont and “get back to work”. Outside city hall the crowd heard from many regional union leaders denouncing the DUP and Heaton‑Harris. Speakers highlighted the Tory hypocrisy of there always being money to fund wars—referring to Britain’s bombing of Yemen and support for Israel’s ongoing genocide of Palestinians.

Carmel Gates general secretary of education union Nipsa said, “Today our anger is for Chris Heaton‑Harris”. Adding “with the lack of responsibility from political leaders, the trade unions are leading in NI and the workers are more united than ever”.

Alan Perry, a GMB rep, noted last Thursday’s strike as “a clear message to the secretary of state—enough is enough. No more will our members or ordinary people in NI be used as pawns in political manoeuvres.”

Regional Unite secretary Susan Fitzgerald told strikers, “The secretary of state is scared to meet with workers, those who can grind society to a shuddering halt.” She noted the threat of privatisation as “£150 million out of a £190 million budget for road services were to outsourced agencies”. She concluded “Today’s action can be a marker of hope, as has been made clear, the working class is the only progressive class in society.”

Paddy Mackle of the UCU union said, “There’s been 24 secretaries of state here since the 1990s and Heaton-Harris is becoming the worst.” Gerry Murphy, assistant secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, asserted, “This is a campaign we will win. Consider the successes so far. We have won the popular argument, we have won the political argument and we’ve won the financial argument. Even in Westminster they admit this place has been underfunded for years.”

Unionism has been in crisis for many years and the DUP’s last tool is to bring down the power sharing government. Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s deputy leader, told the BBC, “I can only hope that Jeffrey Donaldson is listening and hears the plight of the workers and, even at this late juncture, makes the right call and joins with the rest of us around that executive table and let us do our best to try and support these workers.”

All the mainstream parties share some responsibility in pushing through cuts from the Tories and Labour since the Good Friday agreement in 1998. Stormont may not be back in operation for a while. It’s up to rank and file members to push their unions from the below for escalating action until they win inflation busting pay deals.

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