The centre of Belfast was overwhelmed by public sector workers and supporters who took part in the biggest strike in decades yesterday (Wednesday, November 30) after talks between Unions and the Government over pension contributions and changing retirement ages broke down.
Across Belfast teachers, health care staff, civil servants and council staff took to the picket lines as did workers in the Assembly, the PSNI, Fire Service, Human Rights Commission, the Equality Commission, Translink and the Labour Relations Agency.
Vast numbers of the strikers assembled outside the City Hall to listen to rally speakers and musicians while shoppers roamed through the Continental Market behind them.
The public sector workers cheered as union leaders took to the platform with rallying cries such as: “Enough is enough, and we will fight to protect our futures — we are fighting to protect our futures.”
They heard from local singer songwriter Tommy Sands, and sang along with him to “There’s a way, there’s a better way — tax a billionaire”.
He said he was singing a song for the workers, both in the public and private sector who were paying for a recession and austerity measures not caused by them.
Banners from Unions across Northern Ireland and across different sectors were held high in large numbers at the rally.
A banner bearing the message: ‘We are Stranmillis’ was held aloft by two workers.
Their teaching college is to be ‘discontinued’ and merged with Queen’s University, after Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry suggested that Stranmillis is financially unviable in the future.
While the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA) had asked MLAs not to cross their picket lines at Stormont, a number of parties did.
SDLP, Sinn Fein and Green representatives visited picket lines, while DUP and UUP politicians went to work in the Assembly. Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle crossed the picket line to go to work.
NIPSA, Northern Ireland’s largest public sector trade union, has hit out at UK Government Ministers who have criticised the strike as ‘unnecessary’ and the work of ‘trade unionists itching for a fight’.
Brian Campfield, NIPSA General Secretary, said:”It is unbelievable that government ministers can continue to claim that the strike is unnecessary and premature when it was the government which launched a unilateral and unprovoked attack on public sector pensions when in April of this year, without any consultation with pensioners, trade unions or even John Hutton, the man the government appointed to review public sector pensions, it changed the inflation measure for uprating public sector pensions leading to a substantial loss in the value of all public service pensions.”
Eamon Coy, GMB Senior Organiser said: “Millions of public sector workers will be protesting about the government’s unfair and bullying attack on their |pensions.
“This government’s vocal erosion of public services and public sector workers rights is in marked contrast to their complete lack of action over the out of control bankers and the obscene levels of pay to directors in the boardrooms.”
Northern Ireland Conservative Irwin Armstrong said it was “an irresponsible, selfish and futile strike which will hurt the economy and the vulnerable”.