March 13th saw an important show of strength by workers in health, education, the civil service and public transport. Tens of thousands of workers showed they were prepared to fight the austerity agenda of Stormont and Westminster. In the weeks before the strike many workers and activists were concerned that it would be a one-off and not followed up by further serious action as the majority of union leaders would not support the idea of naming a second date for action. Instead they make vague commitments that March 13th would just be the start of the fight. Events since March 13th make it crystal clear that this was nothing more than empty rhetoric from some.
This unwillingness to fight was demonstrated clearly by the failure of NIC-ICTU (the co-ordinating body of the trade unions in Northern Ireland) to back a proposal from NIPSA to call a follow-up strike prior to the general election in order to maxImise pressure on politicians and to put the issue of Stormont austerity centre stage in the election. Instead, they have opted for a vague and unspecified commitment to consider further strike action in the autumn. This will allow Stormont ministers a free hand to implement cuts without opposition from a coordinated movement against austerity over the next six months.
Despite the lack of co-ordinated leadership, workers in certain sectors have shown they are prepared to struggle, with Translink workers taking a magnificent stand by organising a strike on May 6th. Ambulance staff – despite the bully-boy tactics used by management on March 13th – will be striking alongside them. Midwives are planning their first ever strike. NIPSA education and health workers have called for coordinated strikes on May 6th.
In many cases, action short of strike has been planned, such as work-to-rules. While this can have an effect it is not a substitute for a serious campaign of strike action that can really rattle the politicians. The planned strike action at the start of May could have been even more significant had workers in the civil service been allowed to join the strike action. However, a motion put to NIPSA’s Civil Service Executive to call strike action alongside Translink workers was narrowly defeated. The motion was put forward by representative of NIPSA Broad Left – which the Socialist Party is part of – but opposed by members of NIPSA Unity, the right-wing grouping which holds a majority on the body.
The May strikes should be followed up with well organised meetings of activists in all public sector unions. This would allow the members and the activists who are on the frontline to decide where the campaign should go next in the aftermath of the election. It will allow the members to hold the leaders who have not been prepared to organise follow up strikes to account. What have the trade union leader got to fear from allowing members to decide where to next?
The late Bob Crow – former leader of the RMT transport union in Britain – once said “If you fight, you might lose. If you don’t fight, you will always lose.” Unfortunately, most of our trade union leader have been found wanting and are more concerned with defending a cosy relationship with sectarian austerity parties in Stormont than defending their members interests. Trade union activists who want to see a fight against austerity must get organised to force their leaders to take action and, if they refuse, replace them. The building of broad, left-wing activists groups in the unions can play an important role in transforming our trade unions into fighting, democratic organisations which reflect the wishes of their members.