Northern Ireland

Junior doctors strike remains on course as other trade unions consider pay deals

Junior doctors on a picket line in London
Junior doctors pictured on a picket line in London in January. Their counterparts in Northern Ireland are set to follow with a 24-hour walkout next month while other trade unions across health, transport and education have paused any further strikes to consider pay deals. (Jonathan Brady/PA)

AFTER a weekend of movement on pay talks, a junior doctors strike is currently the only major action scheduled in Northern Ireland over the coming weeks.

Junior doctors are still set for a 24-hour walkout beginning at 8am on March 6, but several trade unions representing workers in transport, health and education are now waiting on the outcome of various processes about pay to decide if they will return to picket lines.

Bus and rail services will run as normal this week after fears that transport workers would strike between Tuesday and Thursday.

Members of the Unite, GMB and Siptu trade unions are all being balloted on a new pay offer from Translink, with any strikes suspended while the offer is considered.

Health workers are also being balloted on a new offer to restore pay parity with England, meaning a consolidated pay uplift of 5% and a non-consolidated (pro-rata) payment of £1,505.

Unison has said a key goal for 2024/25 will now be catching up with the pay of health workers in Scotland and Wales.

By Monday, most civil servants in Northern Ireland were also offered a 5% pay increase along with a one-off payment of £1,500.

In addition, the lowest paid civil servants were offered an increase of 10% to bring their pay up to £12 an hour or £23,177 annually.

It follows one of the biggest strike days in Northern Ireland for decades on January 18, where workers including civil servants demanded pay parity with the rest of the UK.

Trade unions are now consulting members over the offer.

Stormont’s Finance Minister Caoimhe Archibald commented: “Civil servants, like other public servants, have been waiting some time for their 2023 pay award against the context of a cost-of-living crisis and pressures on their own household budgets.

“I hope staff will look favourably on the offer and that unions’ consultation with their members will proceed as swiftly as possible so we can get pay to staff as soon as practicable.

“Our public sector workers are at the heart of service delivery. We have a challenging journey of enhancing services in the time ahead for which we will need the expertise of our staff.”

In education, Northern Ireland’s five main teaching unions agreed to suspend any future strike action to allow for talks over an outstanding pay award.

There is more uncertainty for school support staff, who were recently told there was no money in the education budget to resolve a pay and grading dispute that has been ongoing since 2018.

The education minister Paul Givan is now seeking additional funding to resolve the issue through the 2024/25 budgetary round, but union leaders have said their members are prepared for fresh strikes if this process fails.

The issue has been especially important for parents of children with special needs that have struggled with the disruption to their routines during previous strikes.

On Monday, the strength of feeling was on show outside Stormont as members of the Colin autism support and advice group staged a protest.

Speaking to the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme, Unison’s Conor McCarthy commented: “Just this week I was speaking to support staff, supervisors within that category who are working for just a couple of pence more an hour as the lowest ranks they supervise.

“We have classroom assistants still waiting over five years to reach the top of their pay grade. There’s a significant amount of work to be done in reforming that pay grading structure.”

Looking to the junior doctors dispute, there is still no sign hat the strikes will be called off.

Last week, the health minister Robin Swann told the British Medical Association’s junior doctor committee that the strikes “cannot achieve anything of substance” and that he could only work within his budget.

Recommendations from an independent pay review body are to be implemented for 2023/24, meaning a backdated pay rise of 9.1% for junior doctors and 10.7% for those in their first year.

The BMA has said this is not enough to avert strike action as junior doctor pay has been eroded by 30% over the past 16 years.

Dr Fiona Griffin chairs the BMA NI junior doctors committee.

“We have been consistently clear we are seeking an above inflation pay rise for all junior doctors and a commitment to working with us towards full pay restoration,” she said.

“As it stands, what has been offered is not enough to avert strike action and our plans for this continue.

“We remain willing to work with the minister to agree an offer we believe is worth putting to our members.”