'Angry but determined'

Unite joins 150k public sector workers in historic NI strike

Reading time: 6 min

Thousands of Unite members joined an historic strike in Northern Ireland on Thursday (January 18) that brought all public services to an unprecedented standstill.

The strike, which has been called the biggest in Northern Ireland in half a century, brought together an astonishing 150,000 public sector workers to demand better pay and conditions and adequate funding for the services they proudly provide.

The striking workers – members of 16 separate unions who undertook coordinated action — included bus and train drivers, teachers, health workers, road safety workers and civil servants among many others, who all joined packed rallies across towns and cities in Northern Ireland such as Belfast, Derry/Londonderry, Omagh, Magherafelt and Enniskillen.

Commenting Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said, “Years of underfunding and cutbacks, a low pay driven staffing crisis and creeping privatisation have lacerated our vital public services. This strike action represents a demand for a society where public services are delivered with proper staffing, by workers paid decently and treated with respect and dignity.

 “Strike action is being taken by workers in defence of public services which benefit everyone,” she added. “Low pay is driving a staffing crisis as workers vote with their feet. Unite is entirely focussed on protecting and enhancing our members jobs, pay and conditions and the union’s workers involved in this dispute have its complete support.

On the eve of the walkout, Unite issued a warning to secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris demanding the release the funds he has withheld from public services, including provision for a cost of living pay increase for public sector workers, or face further escalation in the dispute.

Workers are angry that Heaton-Harris, who previously said public sector pay was a devolved matter over which he could not intervene, is now using public sector workers as political pawns – he’s offered a £3.3bn funding package, including £600m for public sector pay, but said this package was contingent on the Stormont Assembly and executive being restored.

Unite regional secretary Susan Fitzgerald noted, “Workers are angry but determined; today they have led the way and courageously made a stand in defence of public services. This strike is a giant step in the fight not just to defend our public services and secure a cost of living pay increase but to reverse years of damage and neglect.

 “If the secretary of state continues his intransigent stance, workers will be left with no alternative but to continue and deepen their opposition. The behaviour of the secretary of state to date has been nothing short of contemptuous to public sector workers and to our vital services.”

UniteLive caught up with Unite rep Stephen McNulty, who took part in the strike and rallies alongside members working in road safety.

“The day was definitely tinged with a bit of sadness because the guys take an enormous amount of pride in the work they do,” he explained. “They were sad that it had come to this because they understood there would be many people who might not be able to get to work or where they needed to.”

But Stephen said members were also ‘upbeat’ because they were confident in the rightness of their cause and knew that they had widespread public backing.

“We’ve really just had enough,” he explained. “We’re angry that the power is there, and the money is there to give us a decent pay rise but there’s just no political will to do it.”

Like so many public services, Stephen and his colleagues’ jobs are absolutely vital for the functioning of their communities. Stephen explained that they attend to any and every single incident involving road safety – from fallen trees to road traffic accidents and more. They work closely with emergency services in all manner of scenarios.

“They often have to work on country roads when it’s pitch black. It’s very, very dangerous work and very laborious work,” he said. “They have to work overtime and unsociable hours to make ends meet. It means they have to sacrifice time with their loved ones. They deserve so much more.”

Stephen went on to say that the co-ordinated strike day was eye-opening for the public because “they realised how important all our jobs are”.

“People are now more aware of the work we do specifically – they know now that if we aren’t there, people can’t get to work, the police can’t do their jobs and ambulances can get patients to hospital. For all their hard work, our members are on the minimum wage, which is a scandal.”

Stephen pleaded with politicians to resolve the issue so that public sector workers can do the jobs they take so much pride in.

“Our members stay in these jobs because they love to serve the public – it’s very rewarding work but we can’t pay our bills anymore. We’re struggling to survive.

“The means are there for a solution to this crisis — we just need politicians to do something about it,” he said. “I don’t care how they do it – just sort it out.”

Stay tuned on UniteLive for the latest updates on Northern Ireland’s public sector strikes.

By Hajera Blagg

Pic by Unite the Union NI