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Cuts go North

Some Unions will mobilise on 23 October against 19% UK block-grant reduction.b
by Anton McCabe

A Comprehensive Spending Review for the North is due for delivery on 20 October. This will announce major cuts, probably of Southern levels. This will have social implications, but also have political ramifications.

So far this year, reductions of almost £495million (€583.8million) have been signalled. In January, the then Labour Government announced cutbacks of £367million (€439.8million). In May, the new Conservative-Liberal Government declared another £128million (€153.4million).

From reports, it seems these savings were minor compared to what is coming. The Northern Assembly received a block grant of £10,234,400,000 (€12.265billion) for the last financial year. Finance Minister Sammy Wilson has spoken of a cut of £2billion (€2.36billion).

This has big social implications. 32% of the workforce is employed in the public sector. The sector represents approximately 62% of the economy. With 50% of public spending going on wages, any significant cut will include significant redundancies and/or sizeable wage cuts. The removal of this spending would exacerbate current economic difficulties, with retailers and the housing market struggling.

The cuts would particularly affect women. Approximately half of all women at work are in the public sector. Because they are concentrated in the public sector, the North’s women are more equal to their male equivalents in terms of pay than their British sisters; average female hourly earnings in the North are 97.4% of average male earnings, compared to 87.2% in Britain.

The cuts will not go without challenge. The question is how strong that will be. The North has the highest rate of union membership of any UK region, at 39.7%. This again reflects the size of the public sector, still largely unionised in the UK.

The unions have gone through a period of decline. While membership has not fallen as steeply as in Britain – partly because of the size of the unionised public sector– activity had fallen back to a point where many union branches didn’t meet, and many unionised workplaces no longer had shop stewards.

In the past couple of months, the unions are engaging in a level of public activity not seen since the solidarity collections for the (British) Miners’ Strike of 1984-5. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has organised Trade Councils to set up stalls in many Northern towns. The most active union has been NIPSA (the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance), a locally-based union that organises public-sector workers: its membership is mostly, but by no means totally, white-collar. With 46,000 members, NIPSA is the largest Northern-based union. It is seen as quite responsive to its membership.

NIPSA official Joan Munton said the union has been working for the past couple of months to mobilise the membership. “There seems to be a willingness to participate”, she said. “Branches are becoming more active.

As the detail of the cuts becomes clearer, this activity will escalate, as will the action being taken by the unions”.

A series of demonstrations is planned for 23 October, in various towns. The willingness to take strike action against the cuts is still unclear. A branch secretary in UNISON, a union strongest in the health service and with a more blue-collar membership than NIPSA, said the mood in his union was more downbeat. Members were difficult to mobilise.

The response to the cuts has opened certain verbal divisions between the parties. Health Minister Michael McGimpsey of the Ulster Unionists wanted to protect his budget from any cuts. Health represents 40% of all public spending, and other ministers were not prepared to take deeper cuts in their departments to spare health.

Sinn Féin has proposed a ‘united stand’ of the three devolved administrations (the North, Scotland and Wales). Assembly member Mitchell McLaughlin said cuts “proposed or imposed by the British Government must be challenged and resisted”. In response, Finance Minister Sammy Wilson of the DUP said all politicals needed to be “realistic”: “Everyone is going to feel the pinch of what is coming down the line over the next number of years”.

Significantly, McLaughlin is not a minister, and is thus able to speak without destabilising the Executive. The DUP has said that Sinn Féin ministers, like others, are preparing cuts in their departments. Certainly there is no sign of Sinn Féin walking out of the Executive in protest at cuts.