The 24 hour strike by UNISON members to defend Health and Education Services in the North is an indication of the scale of the crisis in the public sector. But its also the most significant trade union struggle to hit the North since the onset of the current economic crisis.
The executive are planning £300 million in Education cuts and £2.3 billion in Health cuts over the next four years. This will have an enormous impact, not only on jobs (affecting women in particular) and services, but on the communities that rely on the work of health and education workers also. Thse figures represent something like £1485 for every man, woman and child in the North. The impact of this on the wider economy will be dramatic. Press reports earlier this year estimated that the effect of these cuts would mean up to 4,000 job losses and as Patricia McKeown of UNISON explained recently:
Ms McKeown said: "We are at a critical stage in many areas, I think of one health trust that has just produced its figures.
"One hundred and fifty nurses on permanent contracts left within 12 months. They were replaced by 50, that pattern is repeated across all the occupational groups and across all of the trusts.
"Why are people waiting out there on trolleys for 21 hours? Because the staff aren't inside the service to be able to deliver.
Services are being run down and patients are being forced to suffer. The decision of the Executive to pass on the Tory and Lib Dem cuts illustrates also just how toothless the Executive really is. Its no wonder that UNISON members are up in arms. They have been forced into a corner. Recent reports indicate that targets are being missed in Accident and Emergency Departments. If that is the case then its likely that other areas will be even more badly effected, especially as the cuts begin to bite.
This strike is significant for other reasons. As the UNISON website explains:
"UNISON members have not taken this action lightly; indeed it has been more than thirty years since our last dispute.
Earlier this year, we exposed the McKinsey Report, the cuts to the Helath services it contained and the proposed charges to be imposed on our patients. This action is to highlight and prevent massive cuts in services which will mean longer waiting times less hospitals, charges for services etc. This will impact not just on you but on future generations. If we lose services now we will never get them back."
This demonstrates that there is growing pressure from below on the Trade Union leaders. But that pressure is being channelled through the movement. Shop Stewards, Branch Officers and activists are feeling the pressure first haqnd from the members,
The demonstration on March 26th in Belfast was the first stage in the struggle against the cuts. The strike on Wednesday which will a significant proportion of UNISON's 40,000 members in the North. But this isn't just a battle for the Health and Education Workers. It's a battle for the Youth - particularly in the schools and the Students, for the pensioners and for the working class as a whole. Central to the struggle against the cuts is the need to build the maximum unity.
The UNISON website has a list of picket lines
Students in the North for example are organising to fight for Free Education. That battle will be a lot easier if these cuts in Health and Education can be defeated. Our advice to the young student activits is to visit the picket lines and make contact with the strikers. These cuts and the attacks on Higher Education come from the same place. Likewise these attacks are going to affect all communities in the North.There's a common enemy. Now's the time to get organised and fight back.