Northern Ireland health workers strike over budget cuts

The Democratic Unionist Party has accused the public sector union Unison of having presided over strikes with no mandate from those involved, reports Ed Jacobs.

The Democratic Unionist Party has accused the public sector union Unison of having presided over strikes with no mandate from those involved.

On the day the BBC reported every minister within the Stormont Executive, baring the SDLP’s Alex Attwood, had agreed public sector workers should pay an extra 3.2% in pension contributions, Unison have reported 26,000 of its health service members went on strike yesterday over cuts being imposed on the health services by Stormont.

Outlining the purpose of the industrial action, the union’s regional secretary, Patricia McKeown, explained:

“Nobody wants to lose pay and stand on picket lines but that is what UNISON members are doing.

“They are rejecting the cuts, the threats to the schools meals service, the 25% cut in the general schools’ budget. They are rejecting proposals to charge for health care, privatise community care and cease offering treatment to groups of patients. They are rejecting increasing waiting times and services stretched to breaking point.  They are rejecting job loss, recruitments freezes, and unbearable pressure.

“It does not have to be this way. In just once action alone, if the UK government collected tax evaded by large corporations, NI’s take would restore the block grant.

“If the Executive were do properly do what UNISON members have been doing with their employers for the past four years and collectively look at how money could be better spent they would save £millions – over members have.

“There is little point in the health minister setting up a ‘Review Group’ with the instruction that it must deliver the budget cuts.  This is political cover not health planning. The education minister is starting to tackle the problem of falling roles and empty schools but to get to a better system the £300m cut needs a rapid rethink.

“If we all stand together to protect our vital services we can make difference.”

The industrial action, however, has prompted the DUP to argue it has no legitimacy, with the party’s MLA for South Down and vice chair of the Assembly’s health committee, Jim Wells, having  argued:

“A ballot where only 18% of people participated does not signify that there is any real appetite for this action even amongst Unison members. This does not represent a mandate. Eighty seven per cent of their members did not vote for this move.”

In his response, health minister Edwin Poots sought to highlight the 2,400 health service appointments or procedures that he argued had been cancelled as a result of the action.

However, in a signal the fault lies mainly with the UK government’s spending settlement, Poots concluded:

“Peter Robinson won’t be receiving a call from David Cameron to say that there is several billion for the health service in Northern Ireland as a result of the strike – but they are bringing pain and discomfort to ill and vulnerable people.”

Unison’s actions come as it emerged the Association and Teachers and Lecturers would be balloting their 3,000 members in Northern Ireland to approve industrial action for November 30th over planned changes to pensions.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, the ATL’s director in Northern Ireland, Mark Langhammer, explained:

“We don’t take this step lightly but government pension proposals mean teachers will work longer and get less. ATL has never before taken country-wide strike action. It’s not where our members want to be, but we are balloting for action to encourage real negotiations.”

If approved by its members, it will be the first time the union has gone on strike in its 127-year history, leading Sinn Fein education minister and acting first minister, John O’Dowd, to warn of a winter of “deep discontent”.

In Wales, meanwhile, 300 schools were reported to have been closed as members of the UCAC union, representing 5,000 school staff, took strike action over the UK government’s reforms to public sector pensions.

Outlining why teachers were taking the action they were, Elaine Edwards, UCAC’s general secretary, explained:

“The government’s proposals are totally unnecessary and absolutely unfair. Asking teachers and lecturers to pay more each month, to work until they’re 68 and even then to receive smaller payments in retirement shows a lack of understanding of the nature of the profession and also a complete lack of respect to educators.”

“The Teachers’ Pension Scheme is sustainable. That isn’t the problem. The problem is the enormous deficit created by the bankers – but the government won’t own up to that.“For teachers, taking strike action doesn’t come easily; we’re all too aware of the effect on pupils and their parents.

“But we’re concerned that this attack on pensions will have a negative impact on educational standards by making teaching a less attractive profession – and we know that that’s a matter of concern for parents too.”

With unions across the UK pledging a day of mass strikes on November 30th, events in Northern Ireland and Wales look set to be only a taste of things to come.

See also:

Northern Ireland health minister warns of “thousands” of job lossesEd Jacobs, June 27th 2011

Where will the NHS go from here?Martin Rathfelder, December 18th 2010

Northern Ireland’s cuts double whammyEd Jacobs, November 11th 2010

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland facing more cutsEd Jacobs, July 8th 2010

The NHS – is it truly national?Ed Jacobs, January 20th 2010

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9 Responses to “Northern Ireland health workers strike over budget cuts”

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