NIPSA civil service workers have voted for strike action in response to an inadequate pay offer. PBP MLA Gerry Carroll offers his support to the strike and looks at why action is necessary to achieve decent pay during the Stormont impasse.
NIPSA civil service workers are set to strike July 26th. The 68.5% vote for strike action was accompanied by a huge 85.9% vote for action short of strikes that will commence July 29th. The defiant votes were a message to bosses, that their latest pay offer was unacceptable. The offer of 1.25%, from the Department for Finances Permanent Secretary Sue Gray, was a slap in the face for workers; coming significantly below the rate of inflation, the ninth offer in a row to do so.
With the cost of living up, a 1.25% offer is just not good enough. In recent years many civil service workers have had to take on extra workloads because of staff cuts. As the cost of living rises—diesel has increased by 19% in the last period, for example, and electricity prices have increased by 4 percent month-on-month, but are a substantial 54 percent higher compared to January 2018—and the workload increases, workers deserve to be paid a wage that can comfortably support them.
Food banks for workers
Failure to pay a decent living wage has led to workers having had to apply for working tax credits, while others have been forced to take on extra shift work at weekends or a second job to make ends meet. This is the reality for many civil service workers in the North who are supposedly living in “post-austerity” times. Previously the civil service was presented as a place where you could progress and move up the ladder, with decent terms and conditions, but many workers are now stuck on the same pay grade, which doesn’t increase in line with inflation, while taking on more work, stress and responsibility—so much for the ‘brighter future’ promised by Philip Hammond.
And as NIPSA Deputy General Secretary Carmel Gates told the Belfast Telegraph, “this is about more than pay, about more than the below inflation pay offer, it’s about changes to terms and conditions and the fact that we’ve had promotion prospects reduced because the civil service has gone to external recruitment for posts that would normally be available to our members via internal promotion.” In particular, the last measure is a breach of the NICS Staff Handbook and denies the opportunity of advancement to staff. It is unacceptable, and is one of the other reasons behind the ballot for strike action.
We’ve been told by the great and the good over the last period that nothing can be resolved until Brexit is dealt with or until Stormont is up and running. Herein lies the importance of this strike, in my opinion. Its high time we stopped waiting for the establishment to get its act together; workers have waited too long for Stormont and Westminster to do anything serious about pay. They have been ignored or treated with contempt for long enough. That they are taking action into their own hands puts an end to the idea that nothing can be done.
NIPSA reps have heralded strike action as a final unavoidable step because of employer actions. I think it is fair to say that at this stage, the only thing that will force movement on pay or any ongoing issue is people taking action, taking the situation into their own hands. It may be a last step, but it is also the most crucial and the most efficient step we have to pave out a decent future for ourselves.
The power of protest
Action can win. Take the recent legislative amendments passed through Westminster around abortion and equal marriage, for example; there is no doubt that these issues where put on the table because of massive pressure from campaigners engaged in demonstrations and protests. Similarly, action by those directly involved in the issue of tackling pay discrepancies can bring victory in the fight for a well deserved and much needed pay increase.
Action by civil service staff can also send a message to all workers—be they in the public or private sector—that they too should fightback for decent pay and conditions. We don’t have to wait for the reinstatement of Stormont or a renewed budget from Westminster to take action. This could have a ripple effect across workplaces where people feel they have been taken for granted time and time again.
Chief Civil Servants have the remit and a public responsibility to make decisions around addressing pay inequality now. Karen Bradley, Northern Ireland Secretary of State, has granted new powers to senior civil servants to introduce measures if it is within “the public interest to exercise the function”. Most people (save for right-wing talking heads) believe that workers of all varieties should be paid a living wage. In the North, there are at least 215,000 workers who are in Unions. And when you take them into account, and add in their families, who would also support and benefit from them getting a pay increase, who is to say that the vast majority of people here would NOT support an equitable pay offer for workers? It is obviously, then, in the public interest.
Too often we are given the smokescreen excuse that civil servants cannot take “political decisions”. The reality is that chief civil servants have made many important decisions in the wake of the Stormont collapse; such as the decision to build incinerators, or opening consultations to kickstart the process of private companies drilling for oil, to name just two. Furthermore, some health service employees have already received a 3% pay increase, local Government employees received a 2% increase, audit office staff received between 2.4 and 4%. There is no reasonable excuse, therefore, as to why civil service workers aren’t offered more than a measly 1.25%.
Stormont no friend to workers
Before Stormont collapsed, it was certainly no friend of public sector workers. There was a consensus on the hill that the public sector was “too big” and that it had to be reduced; evidenced by attacks on classroom assistants pay and conditions, for example, and the scrapping of thousands of public sector jobs in the Fresh Start Agreement. The truth is that not only should we not wait for Stormont, but left to its own devices, Stormont is unlikely to deliver on the issue of pay inequality even if it was up and running.
That is not to give them a free pass. Lifting the pay cap and addressing lost earnings for workers should be central to political discussions here, if we aren’t to return to the status quo. The only way that I believe that can be delivered is through a campaign of industrial action, rallies, and public meetings that puts all parties—but particularly Sinn Féin and the DUP—under pressure to commit to installing pay equality and pay restoration, regardless of what institution enacts it.
It is also worth acknowledging how important a strike like this is—involving as it does workers from all backgrounds—in the wake of months of sectarian tension. By sanding shoulder to shoulder in the fight for pay equality, workers from all sides of our communities can do what the politicans cant; bring people together in common cause.
We can afford it
Finally, we will be confronted with the question asked ad nauseum, ‘can we afford this?’ The answer, simply, is yes. Between 2003 and 2015, Invest NI has paid over £1.5 billion in public monies to private companies. If billions of taxpayers’ money can be handed over to private, profitable multi-nationals, then there is money which can be used to provide workers with a fair wage.
Then there is the £1.5 billion promised as part of the Tory-DUP pact. As of yet, we’ve seen very little of the plans to spend it. Why shouldn’t a section of it be side-lined for workers’ pay?
Both main political parties in the North are still addicted to the neo-liberal mantra that wealth trickles down. They are fixated on reducing taxes for big multinational companies in the fantasy idea that it will be spread around. That particular move would lose us around £350 million from the block grant every single year. Yes, that’s the same block grant that Sammy Wilson said last week was too limited to provide a decent wage for civil service workers planning to strike.
Instead, a sounder economic model is one which puts money into the pockets of workers who live here and pay them what they are owed. The proof is there, widely researched and reported; putting money back into the pockets of people through living wages will bolster the local economy, benefit our local communities and lift the poverty burden felt by far too many people. Next week’s strike can help put those parties under pressure to deliver on that.
My full support and solidarity goes to each of the striking workers.