Belfast Telegraph

Country brought to standstill by strike 90% didn't vote for

40,000 members, but just 4,200 for a mass walkout

By Adrian Rutherford

Just 10% of members of one of Northern Ireland's biggest trade unions voted for the strike action that brought misery to thousands yesterday.

Just 4,200 of the 40,000 members balloted by Nipsa backed the mass walkout.

A day of action saw thousands of public sector workers take to picket lines in a protest over spending cuts.

Buses and trains were cancelled, schools closed and medical appointments delayed in the biggest public sector strike for years.

There are warnings of worse to come. Unions plan to cripple Northern Ireland with an even bigger strike before the general election on May 7.

On a day of chaos across the region:

  • An estimated 50,000 workers took to picket lines, with health, education, transport and civil service workers joining the walkout n Up to 500 schools were closed, with all public transport cancelled n Around 8,500 gathered in central Belfast, where union leaders attacked the austerity policies of Stormont and Westminster
  • Courts were also affected with dozens of hearings disrupted or cancelled, while some defendants due for release were not processed
  • An angry spat erupted between ambulance workers and management after bosses activated emergency procedures to stop crews joining the protest.

Nipsa was just one of several unions behind yesterday's strike.

The numbers who took part in votes by other unions, including Unison, which balloted 31,500 members, are still not known.

Among the crowd in Belfast was dissident republican group eirigi, which also terms itself socialist.

Speaking of eirigi's presence, an ICTU spokesperson said: "All political groups are welcome to show their support for the actions of working people today."

Around 20,000 civil service jobs are being axed through a voluntary severance scheme.

Last night questions were mounting about how much support the action really had.

Unions had refused to reveal how many of their members voted for the strike when contacted earlier in the week.

A leaked document shows just a tenth of members at Nipsa backed the action. Its 40,000 members were asked were they prepared to take part in the strike, but just 7,943 voted, around a fifth.

Just over half - 52.9% or 4,201 members - of those who did vote backed the strike.

When compared to the original 40,000 ballot, the percentage voting in favour of the mass walkout was just 10.2%.

There seemed to be greater support for action which stopped short of a strike, with more than three-quarters (76.1%) backing this option.

Nipsa assistant general secretary Bumper Graham insisted that the action had huge backing.

"Not one MP was elected to Westminster with a 50% vote from the electorate, so our democratic position is better than the politicians' position," he said.

"It is the failure of the Government, by continuing to impose the stringent anti-trade union rules, that affect things like this.

"For instance we aren't allowed to do electronic balloting." Mr Graham warned yesterday's strike was only the beginning.

A union insider said: "We're planning a much bigger day of action on this side of the general election in order to send out a clear message to our politicians."

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