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Pushed to the wire

NI public sector workers take action
Jimmy Kelly, Unite Ireland region secretary, Friday, March 13th, 2015

Unite’s public sector workers in Northern Ireland have had enough, writes Unite Ireland region secretary, Jimmy Kelly


Unite is joining forces with other unions to take mass strike action today (March 13) in defence of Northern Irish public services. Workers across the health, education, public transport, housing and wider public sector will be taking part in this action.


This strike comes in the face of brutal austerity cuts which were agreed by all the Northern Ireland Executive parties in December.


For a number of years, the executive has been able to put off the full impact of the Con-Dem government’s austerity measures, but this year the pressures built up to the point that they couldn’t be avoided.


The draft Budget in December included £872m of crippling public-sector cuts, threatening to devastate public services already running at breaking point.


The trade unions had called on the Northern Irish parties to oppose these cuts and to stand up to the Tories and Liberal Democrats in Westminster.


Not only is austerity an attempt to force working-class people to pay the price for a crisis we didn’t cause, but Northern Ireland continues to endure particular challenges arising from the legacy of conflict, partition and economic dislocation.


Agreement on the implementation of the devastating budget cuts came a time of an intense political stand-off between the parties. This was principally due to Sinn Fein’s opposition to the implementation of the Benefits Reform Bill — a situation resulting in threats of £144m in fines being enforced by the Treasury on the Northern Ireland Executive.


The Stormont House Agreement of January which ended the political impasse also set in concrete the harsh austerity budget — but the opposite message went out to the public. They were sold the line that the Stormont House deal gave us an extra £2 billion over 10 years. What we weren’t told was that not a penny of this will go towards defending public services.


Two-thirds of the promised “extra” money is a loan that will have to be repaid through selling off public assets and privatising public services like Northern Ireland Water and our bus and rail services.


And £700m is to be borrowed to fund a redundancy package for 20,000 public-sector workers, which will result in a further 7,000 job losses in the wider economy.


The long-term “savings” are to be earmarked to halve corporate taxes to make Northern Ireland a global tax haven in the hope that tax-dodging multinationals will employ a few locals while they are here!


Unite members know a lie when they hear one.


“We have been pushed to the wire — it’s one insult after another. These cuts are not only dangerous to patients, they are causing enormous stress and hardship to health workers. We are left with only one option: to fight until we win,” declared one Unite health worker.


Another member said: “As bus drivers, we see how essential our services are to the community. As workers, we can absorb no more cuts. Enough is enough. We are determined not to back down on this one.”


Instead of such insane economic shock therapy policies, Unite is calling for government to adopt a positive approach to growing our economy. We believe government should borrow to invest money in the fundamentals: the education of our young people, improving our energy, transport and water infrastructure and investing in productive industries.


The Conservative-led Westminster government is saying that it plans to cut more in the next two years than it has in the last five years. Labour is now on record as saying that they are also committed to further cutting public expenditure, just not at the same rate.


The Stormont House deal shows that there will be no opposition to this agenda locally and it is now clear that this harsh Budget is just the first of many, designed to undermine the long-term viability of public services. These cuts are only the beginning.


The labour movement must respond. This is the first day of action to indicate the strength of opposition to policies which are guided by an agenda of “hollowing out” remaining public services leading to their privatisation.


Today’s NHS, the right to public education and social welfare protections were all hard-won by the trade union movement and our political allies in the past. We cannot sit idly by and allow these gains to be dismantled in what is an unwinnable race to the bottom.


Those who seek to undermine our public services also seek to divide workers by any means possible — religion, nationality, ethnicity, rural versus urban, the employed versus the unemployed and public versus private. The list goes on. The motivation is the same — to divide and conquer.


Unite’s motto is: “In our union there is strength.” Workers need to stand together. Attacks on public-sector wages and pensions are in reality an attack on all workers’ wages and pensions.


The agenda of the Tories is not so much to balance the books as to attack any better-paid workers so as to lower pay and conditions for everyone. An injury to one is an injury to all. Our unity is our strength.


March 13 is our first day of action. It needs to be followed up — not just with more industrial actions but with a general strengthening of the labour movement and moves to establish a political alternative. By bringing together workers and our community membership, we will be able to defeat this austerity agenda and defend public services and jobs.


This article first appeared in the Morning Star


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