Discussion/analysis of November 30 public sector strike and rally in the six counties
The material below is taken from the Socialist Democracy site:
Report on Belfast rally
by J.M. Thorn
A rally was held in Belfast city centre on Wed (30 Nov) as part of the one-day strike by public sector workers against proposed pension “reforms”. Around seven thousand people gathered outside Belfast City Hall where they were addressed by a number of speakers.
First up was Michael Dornan, a bus driver and member of UNITE. He said that transport workers were standing together to protect their pensions, accusing the British government of attempting the rob them. Condemning the media smears against trade unions in the run up to the strike Michael asserted that it was not a crime for workers to stand up for their rights. He claimed that the government was trying to divide workers between public and private, but for him this was a false division as trade unions had members in all sectors of the economy and were supporting all workers. He also made the point that public sector pension funds were major investors in private companies. Michael finished by accusing the British Government of robbing pensions and urged people to stand together to oppose the cuts.
The next speaker was Mary Cahalan, a teacher and member of INTO. She said that teachers and principals don’t just go on strike, as they were aware of the value of their jobs and of children. Mary claimed that they wanted negotiation but had been forced onto the picket line by the threat to make them work longer for less. She accused the education minister John O’Dowd of “cynical kite flying” around the issue of education cuts and said that the message to the whole executive was to go back to the British Government and say that they won’t accept cuts. Mary noted that the teachers’ pension scheme was viable. She then highlighted how recent education cuts announced by the minister, the equivalent of £100 per pupil, would result in thousands of job losses amongst teachers and support staff. She claimed that the Government didn’t care about children, only about bailing out bankers and bondholders. Mary said that despite schools being closed the strike was providing the best education for children – teaching them to stand up for equality and for justice. She concluded by hailing the strike as historic and raising the prospect of further industrial action if there was no change.
The third speaker was Ryan Wilson from the NIPSA Youth Committee. He said that it was good to see people standing side by side against the Tory Government. He highlighted how rising youth unemployment, a growing housing crisis and student fees were pointing towards an impoverished future for many young people. He claimed that trade unions were fighting for a better future. Ryan thanked those MLAs who were at the rally and who had not crossed picket lines. He reminded local parties of the support trade unions and the community sector had given to the political settlement. Ryan finished by saying that trade unions would not allow the Government to steal the future. At this point the crowd were treated to a performance from local folk singer Tommy Sands. The speeches resumed after the music with Stephanie Greenwood, a hospital worker and member of UNISON. She said that UNISON members were taking strike action for the second time in eight weeks, not only to protect pensions but also to protect public services. Stephanie then tackled the propaganda surrounding pensions, denying that public sector pension were gold plated or that there was a conflict between workers in the public and private sectors. She said that that rather than a race to the bottom workers had to stand together. Stephanie said that trade union members in the public sector provided services second to none, and that unions would oppose cuts and not allow millionaire ministers to dictate the future. She urged local politicians to get a backbone and make a stand for the welfare state and the health service. Stephanie said that trade unions had drawn the line at pensions and that this was a battle line in the fight to defend rights, services and society. She concluded by asserting that the campaign had only started, that people were on the move and that workers were off their knees.
The fifth speaker was Joe Wilson, a local government worker and GMB member. He welcomed the big turnout in a strike and at the rally, claiming that this was a sign that things were changing in society and that there was significant opposition to spending cuts. Joe said that bankers had created the budget deficit and they were still being bailed out. He highlighted attacks on the disabled and unemployed; cuts to the winter fuel payment; public service job losses; and the extension of the pay freeze. He said that the Government was out to destroy the welfare state and reduce the percentage of GDP given over to public sending. Public sector workers were facing the triple whammy of working longer, paying more and receiving less. He claimed that the local government pension scheme was in good shape. Joe said that there was an alternative to dealing with the economic crisis; that there was a better fairer way. The problem was that the Government was ideologically driven and not listening. Joe said that the objective of industrial action was to put pressure on the government to come forward with new proposals. He concluded by proclaiming that workers wouldn’t stand idly by when wages and working conditions were under attack.
The final speaker was Peter Bunting, chair of the northern committee of ICTU. He began by commending the public sector workers who had come out on strike. He attacked the lies put about by the media that trade union leaders were misleading workers. Peter said that trade unionists were not extremists, that the real extremists in society were tax evaders and speculators, and that the poor were being made to pay for the criminal conduct of the elite. He cited the 50 per cent pay rise for executives and tax relief for executive pensions at the same time workers were expected to work longer for less. Peter claimed that the public sector was being sacrificed to ideology and that people on benefits were being made to suffer. His message to the business community was that cuts would mean less disposable income in the economy and hit businesses. He said that they should consider the long term – the one-day strike was justified and was not an attack on the private sector or small businesses. Peter said that the Tories Plan A was wrecking the economy and that the local parties were carrying out their bidding. He claimed that there was widespread support for the demands of the trade unions to make the rich pay their fair share; to invest in jobs and services; to regulate the financial sector; and for workplace pensions for all. Peter concluded by calling on local politicians to protect people in Northern Ireland, to defy the Tories and fight for the alternative of people, jobs and services.
The one day strike over pensions in the north had a high level of participation by workers and enjoyed widespread public support. By these measurements it can be judged a “success”. However, the dispute is a long way from being won and the British Government still appears determined to push through its pension “reforms”. Over the coming weeks there will be negotiations between the Government and various unions which will put pressure the united trade union front shown on N30. Attempts will be made to divide workers between different sectors and between those in different pension schemes. We can expect that some trade union leaders will break ranks and hail any minor concession a basis for agreement, leaving other groups of workers to fight on alone. We had experience of this in the north a number of years ago when two out of three unions involved in the class room assistants’ dispute broke ranks to ensure that it was defeated. Workers can’t depend on diplomacy between trade union leaders to maintain unity. This can only be achieved by building a grassroots movement that cuts across different unions and different sectors.
Workers in the north cannot depend on the Assembly and Executive to offer any protection. The parties in the Executive have already agreed to the pension changes and more general cuts. The only party to vote against was the SDLP but this really was just a gesture it has no power to veto it. Sinn Fein has been utterly shameless – voting for the changes then denying that they had. They even turned up at the strike rallies and instructed their representatives not to cross picket lines. But such gestures are worthless when they are voting through and implementing cuts. At least the unionist parties were completely consistent and predictable in their reactionary stance on the strike and on spending cuts. They are prepared to vote through whatever is proposed by the Conservative Government at Westminster and to go even further. Of course they still get agitated over sectarian issues, with DUP leader threatening to bring down the Assembly over a suggestion that the symbols of the NI Prison Service may be changed. The contrast in the unionists’ reaction to cuts and symbols really highlights their priorities. It is important that workers in the north lose their illusions in the political settlement. This is process that could accelerate in the coming period as workers take action to defend themselves against austerity measures that are seen to originate at Stormont as much as Westminster.
Comment by Red:
Overall the policy presented by the speakers was a local version of the partnership model. There were complaints about local politicians, but these were not forms of opposition. Rather they were calls for partnership. One speaker reminded politicians of the frantic support the trade unions had offered to the reactionary and sectarian political settlement. Another called on Sinn Fein and the DUP to “stand up” to Westminster – as if these groups had not produced their own austerity programme and plans to cut subsidise transnational companies with public money!
The small socialist movement proved no better. The notorious weathervanes of the Socialist Workers Party showed their ability to sense the prevailing mood with the slogan “Stormont! Whose side are you on?” The Socialist Party, having died in the ditch in June to prevent an all-Ireland rank and file movement opposed to the bureaucracy being formed, circulated in the crowd, issuing individual invitations to their own front – a shop stewards movement loyally confined within the partitioned state.
As an active trade unionist I can assure you that the local trade union bureaucracy have followed through on their sentiment and, having had their protest, are back in the lobbies and committees discussing with government and employers how best to manage the cuts.
The bureaucratic fantasy of partnership rests heavily on Sinn Fein’s protestations of radicalism. Unlike the unionists the Shinners went through a charade of not crossing picket lines protesting the austerity they themselves were introducing.
The one bright element in the whole picture is that when Sinn Fein tried to join marches in West and North Belfast they were expelled by the workers. Some workers are aware of the reactionary role that Sinn Fein play. The lesson of November 30th is that the existing workers leadership will not support them and a new movement will have to be built from the bottom up.