Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 2 August 2014

Only unions can provide bulwark against poverty

At the last full count in 2012, unions affiliated to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) boasted 241,000 members in the north

There will be more people protesting on the streets tomorrow than will march, or seek to march, on the Crumlin Road on Saturday. This will reflect the fact that there are more trade unionists in the north than there are in all the loyal orders combined – indeed, in all the orders and political parties combined.

At the last full count in 2012, unions affiliated to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) boasted 241,000 members in the north.

Tomorrow's strike aims to arrest the decline in public sector pay caused by a combination of wage freeze and inflation. The one-day stoppage is intended to bring it home to the Westminster Government and public representatives generally that the steady erosion of living standards must be halted if we are to reverse the slide into deeper poverty for more and more working people.

A range of commentators has tossed in its tuppence-worth, arguing that one day of protest won't shift the Tory/Lib-Dem Government, or public sector managements. The answer to this argument depends on which side of the so-far metaphorical barricades you choose to take your stance.

If it's to be effective, tomorrow will have to be seen as a beginning, not an end; a first shot rather than a final salvo.

Faced with the prospect of workers taking action in such numbers – there will be hundreds of thousands involved across the UK – propaganda against the public sector grows more intense and more riddled with illogic and distortion.

The public sector is too big, we are told – "bloated" is the favoured word – and drags down private enterprise. This is repeated with such regularity that in some editorial spaces it has been given the status of accepted fact. But it is not a fact.

The main reason for the relative size of the public sector in the north is that the private sector has comprehensively failed the economy and failed the people – this in spite of the loudly-proclaimed pro-business approach of all Westminster and Stormont parties apart from the Greens.

What about the cushy conditions public service workers enjoy compared to those who slave in private employment? True, in spite of all, public sector workers still have better pensions, better sick pay and holiday entitlements.

This reflects the fact that they have been unionised for decades and still are, able to use collective strength to bargain for and defend their conditions of work.

The way to end the disparity in conditions is to rebuild the union presence in the private sector. The vast majority of trade unionists are also part of working-class communities which have been hard hit by the same spending limits as lie behind job losses and lower public sector wages.

The organised strength of the union movement can provide the most effective bulwark against this trend. In this regard, no region is more in need than Northern Ireland.

The most recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reveals that the incomes of the poorest families here have been falling at a faster rate than anywhere else in the UK.

Allowing for inflation, between 2007 and 2012 the incomes of the worst-off 20% in the north fell by 16% – compared with 5% across the water.

The decline is mainly due to job losses and a greater percentage of wage earners having to work part-time. The number of households here where the main breadwinner is working part-time rose by 30% – again, the steepest rise in any region.

The incomes of pensioners have held up, but the numbers of adults under the age of 30 experiencing poverty here rose by a staggering 50% over the five years.

All this before the full impact of the latest round of proposed benefit cuts. Here, again, the north is set to take more pain than elsewhere.

The shift from Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payments will differentially affect the north, where, proportionately, we have almost twice as many people as in Britain claiming DLA: the biggest factor in this is the significantly greater numbers suffering from mental illness – part of the legacy of the Troubles.

Tomorrow's strike deserves the support of all who are struggling against the odds to make ends meet.

It might be noted, too, that this is an action which, far from dividing us, will bring huge numbers together on a basis which has nothing to do with the community they come from.

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