Strikes will keep getting “bigger and better” until pay demands are met, a union leader has said.
On Friday, thousands of healthcare workers began day two of a 48-hour strike to call for pay parity with health workers in other parts of the UK, as well as increased funding for health services.
Workers from a number of unions including Unison, Unite, Nipsa and the Society of Radiographers, manned picket lines outside hospitals across Northern Ireland on Thursday, with the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) joining on Friday.
Hundreds of union members and others from the private sector attended a rally outside Belfast City Hall on Friday.
Nipsa general secretary Carmel Gates said more strikes were to come if pay demands were not met.
“This is one of the biggest strikes that we have seen here in many years, and all of you are on strike today but have other colleagues who are actually being balloted just at the minute, who are planning to take strike action in October, so every strike we’ve had so far has got bigger and better and they’re going to keep getting bigger and better until we have pay justice,” she said.
She also told the crowd that the strikes on Thursday and Friday were the “most political” she had known in her lifetime.
Devolved government in Northern Ireland has not been operational for more than a year due to the DUPs boycott of powersharing in response to post-Brexit trading arrangements.
In the absence of local decision-makers, the region’s most recent budget was set by Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris.
Ms Gates told the PA news agency she felt the trade union movement was filling a political vacuum left by a lack of government.
“It’s a political strike because we are in a complete vacuum in politics. No assembly, and we’ve got a secretary of state who’s sitting back like a colonial ruler,” she said.
She added: “There’s actually nobody taking the decisions and that means there’s nobody running politics and that means that it’s up to us to challenge the Tories.”
Ms Gates said Mr Heaton-Harris needs to start “listening to workers”.
“He needs to understand that he’s playing fast and loose because if he doesn’t do what he needs to do in terms of resigning from his budget, he’s going to destroy the very fabric of society, destroy jobs and public services,” she said.
She also claimed a lack of investment in public services could lead to sectarian division.
“If he doesn’t step back from what he’s doing then I fear young people who see no future in jobs and public services will go to the extremes, potentially get so fed up and so demoralised that we can see a return to a fractured society,” she said.
“To young people turning to violence, turning to sectarianism. Poverty, we know, can breed sectarianism, a political vacuum breeds sectarianism.
“My word to Heaton-Harris is start making the money available, start taking responsibility.”
Paddy Mackel, from the Belfast Trades Council, told the crowds at City Hall that the underfunding of public services was a deliberate choice by the Government.
“The UK Government and the NIO has made a conscious political decision to starve public services of the resources needed and not to provide proper pay rises to workers.
“And the consequence of that inadequate funding, it willingly allows patients to die on trolleys, and it forces people to use food banks, all of which is entirely avoidable,” he said.
Mr Heaton-Harris has told civil servants to engage in public consultation on possible revenue-raising measures.
Mr Mackel said these measures would put pressure on families and would not be accepted by unions.
“Their proposed solution however, to this deliberately manufactured crisis, is to have those same workers and their families pay for their mess through imposing additional water charges, feeding privatisation, prescription charges, tuition hikes for students and cuts to free transport for older people.
“This isn’t robbing Peter to pay Paul. This is robbing us all blind while they laugh at us. But we’re not having it.”
He added: “Our message from this platform is clear. Don’t mess with our public services, don’t mess with the workers and don’t mess with the unions.”
Stephanie Greenwood, chairwoman of Unison, told the rally: “We are shouting together Mr Heaton-Harris.
“You need to understand that the people of Northern Ireland, its workers and its trade unionists, are mighty when we stand together, ignore that at your peril,” she said.
PSNI Acting Assistant Chief Constable Melanie Jones said: “A number of Police Service employees are participating in today’s industrial action by Nipsa.
“Plans are in place to mitigate any risk in critical functions but we are currently experiencing slight delays for non-emergency reports via 101.
“I want to reassure the public that we have the resources in place to allow us to keep people safe.”
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