Opinion

Public sector pay disputes must be urgently resolved

The Irish News view: Teachers, bus and train drivers and school support staff on picket lines this winter is a more urgent political issue than whatever feeble justification the DUP has for its own strike action

Translink bus and rail services will be disrupted by today's strike action. PICTURE: HUGH RUSSELL
Translink bus and rail services will be disrupted by today's strike action. PICTURE: HUGH RUSSELL Translink bus and rail services will be disrupted by today's strike action. PICTURE: HUGH RUSSELL

Industrial action by three separate sets of workers this week illustrates the severity of the crisis facing our public services. On Friday, bus and train drivers will hold a 24-hour strike, disrupting commuters and school transport for thousands of children. Traders fear that business will be harmed, as the all-important Christmas shopping and party season starts in earnest.

Also on Friday, school support workers are on strike. This means non-Translink school bus services will not run while meals and other essential services to support children's education won't be provided.

Read more:

‘Real anger' among teachers as thousands go on strike across Northern Ireland

Bus and train services set for standstill as unions confirm 24-hour strike over pay

It will be the second time in three days that children in particular have been caught up in industrial disputes that adults have a responsibility to resolve.

Teaching unions mounted a 12-hour stoppage on Wednesday, meaning many children had only a few hours of lessons or none at all.

The unifying theme is pay, which unions persuasively argue has fallen behind that of their peers elsewhere at a time when the cost-of-living crisis and inflation have put household incomes under extraordinary pressure.

Teachers from Gaelscoil Na Bhfal in west Belfast were among those taking part in Wednesday's strike action over pay. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
Teachers from Gaelscoil Na Bhfal in west Belfast were among those taking part in Wednesday's strike action over pay. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN Teachers from Gaelscoil Na Bhfal in west Belfast were among those taking part in Wednesday's strike action over pay. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

This is consistent with the messages from the health and social care sector and from our colleges and universities where industrial action has also been pursued this year.

If we had a functioning assembly, these concerns could be brought directly to MLAs and dealt with at Stormont. It is just one of the reasons that devolution and the power-sharing institutions established by the Good Friday Agreement and endorsed by the public are vitally important.

The DUP, of course, continues to block Stormont from sitting. The fact that teachers, bus and train drivers and school support staff are on picket lines this winter should be a more pressing political issue than whatever feeble justification Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and his colleagues have for their own entirely self-serving strike action.

In these circumstances it ought to fall to the secretary of state – however unpalatable that prospect might be – to address the legitimate concerns of public sector workers. Although Chris Heaton-Harris has been happy to impose a punishment budget on Stormont departments and develop proposals to raise more revenue from the public, he has shown a marked reluctance to actually intervene in a meaningful or helpful way.

The nurses' strike was a catalyst for the return of Stormont in 2020 after the Sinn Féin collapse. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that 2023's industrial action will also hasten the return of a devolved government.