Up to 20,000 civil servants across Northern Ireland are set to strike on Friday 26th July in what will be the largest industrial action here since March 2015, when the entire public sector was shut down in opposition to austerity measures agreed by the Tories, the DUP and Sinn Féin.

The strike has been provoked by the refusal of civil service management to engage with the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA), the union representing staff, instead imposing a below-inflation pay deal for 2018/19. This comes after seven years of pay ‘restraint’ already. Other public sector workers have rightly been granted larger increases, including teachers who have been engaged in ongoing industrial action.

Pay is not the only issue. Management have torn up the handbook by externally advertising posts which would normally be filled through internal promotion, a slap in the face for long-standing and low-paid civil servants. There have been attacks on other terms and conditions, all imposed without any reference to staff’s union representatives.

This arrogant approach has rightly provoked an angry reaction. In the ballot for industrial action, 68.5% of NIPSA members voted to strike for a real pay-rise and to defend their rights. At the consultative meetings hosted by the union, workers spoke about the impact austerity has had on their lives, the struggle to make ends meet, with many forced to accumulate debt or work second jobs. This adds to the stress they’re already under in the workplace, with staff numbers slashed by the Stormont politicians and remaining workers forced to pick up the slack.

Fighting strategy needed

Another message which came through loud and clear was that workers want a serious campaign to win on these issues. They remember the times they have been let down by trade union leaderships. The UK-wide public sector strike in November 2011 against the Tories’ pension cuts and the March 2015 strike against Stormont austerity both showed the huge potential power of the organised working class, but both struggles were summarily ended by conservative trade union leaders with next to nothing to show for it.

NIPSA has a fighting track record, due in no small part to the influence of the Broad Left within the union, in which Socialist Party members participate. The union’s Civil Service Executive has already committed to a programme of rolling action following on from 26th July, and is considering possible departmental and selective action, as well as further strikes across the civil service. Local strike committees should be established and regular meetings of members held to ensure maximum participation in democratically deciding the way forward for the struggle.

This is a crucial battle which deserves the support of all working-class people. A victory for the civil servants would act to boost the confidence of workers across both the public and private sectors and show that it is possible to fight back against poverty pay and austerity.

By Daniel Waldron