Dissent and devolution; notes on the Unison strike

It’s a shame the Northern Irish press chose to emphasise two things in its coverage of yesterday’s Unison strike: service disruption and the low strike ballot turn-out.

The strike was about budget cuts and the declining quality of service provision, rather than a narrow question of wages or conditions. The strike was essentially designed to forestall further, more intractable service disruption in the coming years. The media implication that health workers are indifferent to missed appointments and suffering patients is absurd.

The low ballot turn-out is something of a non-issue too; apart from the myriad technical reasons behind poor responses to union postal ballots, stories in which Edwin Poots boasts about his willingness to ‘take the tough decisions’ don’t tend to make snide references to the scanty legitimacy conferred on Stormont decisions by low election-time turnouts. A few quick sums show the parties who voted for the current Stormont budget (DUP, SF, and Alliance) received the support of around a third of the North’s eligible electors in May. Of course no party predicted an impact on ‘frontline services’.

A more interesting point raised by the Unison strike is how difficult it is to make something of political dissent in a devolved region. Health is devolved, of course, but the fate of its budget can be traced to the block grant. A strike or protest can shed light on a looming social ill, and the local minister can blow out his cheeks, make a solemn face, and say his hands are tied by Westminster.

Tommy Steenson, the chair of the Unison group at Belfast City Hospital, seemed very pleased with the strike turnout, saying it was “sending a big message to the employer.” This is reflective of the unions’ muddled, if worthy thinking. Steenson clarified that the strike was directed against the trust, but also looked ahead to the UK-wide strikes on November 30th, hoping these will reverse the overall thrust of the Coalition’s austerity measures. The branch secretary Colin McQuillan, told me that the strike “has to be about putting pressure on Westminster.”

In the afternoon, the Queen’s University branch of the campaigning group Free Education for Everyone met in a campus classroom. Here too, most of the talk was about ‘ideological assaults’ from Westminster. When talk turned to tactics, most of the ideas led to occupation of university buildings or protests of Belfast landmarks. One of the more perceptive speakers said “the real question is; who is the enemy? London, Stormont, or university management?” The question was left unresolved, and no substantive aims or plans were agreed upon.

Needless to say, a strike or protest in a devolved region simply won’t register in London. When pressed, leaders in the health trusts or colleges can point to Stormont. The Stormont minister points to the block grant and Westminster. Local pundits can be relied upon to parrot that ‘the cake is only so big.’ Muddled lines of accountability for issues of great importance lead to muddled, amorphous campaigns of dissent. Campaigns with legitimate grievances and public support then struggle to gain traction, and the vulnerable inevitably lose out.

  • I wont bother with the maths that the parties who didnt support the budget cuts got even fewer votes than the parties who voted for the budget cuts.
    There cant be any logic in dismissing the low turn out in the Assembly Elections and then calling the turnout in the Unison Election a non issue.

    I had something of an interest in yesterdays strike as I sent out Mrs FitzjamesHorse to her Unison picket line with a good breakfast and stirring renditions of The Red Flag and “Come On You Reds Come On You Reds”.

    Itsa simple fact that the ballot turnout and the attendance at Unison meetings to discuss the strikes were an absolute disgrace….room for a Health journalist to contact and actually ask Unison HQ if they have numbers on the meetings held over the last month to actually explain things to members.
    The money paid to hire venues…and the cost effectiveness might be a good question.
    The Strike itself seemed to get a good turn out……..according to my own little Unison “red”……which begs the question that there might be an issue with Unison itself…..or just a general disenchantment. My own observation is that the Unison workers made a futile gesture as part of wider disenchantment. Anda futile gesture I fully support.

    There was……as always….a little interaction on the Picket Lines between Unison folks (who are the Goodies) and NIPSA folks (booooooooo) with the words “Sticky Bast***s” being used against the strikers by their co-workers.
    To be honest its a phrase Ive often used myself.
    But in Norn Iron health and education circles, the animosity between Unison and NIPSA is never far from the surface.

  • Old Mortality

    ‘The strike was about budget cuts and the declining quality of service provision, rather than a narrow question of wages or conditions.’
    No it wasn’t. It was about trying to protect their members’ jobs and/or incomes.
    However, they like to present their self-interest as aligned with the public interest as the doctors do so successfully. Unfortunately for Unison, their typical member is not deemed to be nearly as ‘wonderful’ or ‘marvellous’ as a doctor always is (well, maybe not Harold Shipman).

  • iluvni

    Seems to me this selfish strike was all about McKeown showing to Unison how she could deliver industrial action.
    Maybe she’ll get a promotion.

  • Neil

    Seems to me that this is the least supported strike I’ve ever come across. Many pickets driven past on my way down the Glen Road and Springfield yesterday, precious few horns being beepd by passing drivers.

    If all the workers are concerned about, as they say, are services, then presumably they won’t mind paying a sum towards their pensions comensurate to that which the rest of society must pay? Perhaps not.

  • Clairso

    Lorcan your ceaseless attempts to disrupt and undermine the free education campaign are tiresome and pathetic. Contrary to what you seem to have (mis)perceived, yesterday’s meeting was set up with the aim of fostering a general discussion among new and returning students as to what strategies and tactics might be useful in the ongoing fight against fees. It wasn’t meant to be an organisational meeting so much as a kind of brainstorming session, after which we will put in place the best of the ideas generated. Of those ideas, many, as you say, highlighted the importance of direct action (a respectable and legiitimate tool of political resistance), but other aims included outreach work with school and FE students; building links with UCU and other unions affiliated with the university; building links with anti-fees campaigns in other universities across the UK and Ireland, and putting forward candidates for the Student Council.

    The question, ‘who is the real enemy?’, was not, as you say, left unsolved at the meeting, but answered clearly and directly in the only way possible. The University management, Stormont, and Westminster are all enemies of free education, and whichever figurehead we target will depend upon the individual circumstances of particular campaigns. A campaign against job losses will focus primarily on university management, while the campaign for free education is aimed primarily at Stormont. It is not our job, as you seem to think, to become apologists for any of these groups, or to resolve their budget dilemmas for them, but rather to put the (fair and equitable) case that free education should be at the center of a civilised society. If this demand cannot be met, it points to underlying problems with the institutions themselves, and the need to reform or replace them.

    Local action may, as you say, have little influence in London, but no one at FEE was suggesting it did; that battle can (quite obviously) only be faught by co-ordinated action across the UK (including here). We are working at fostering the kinds of links with other campuses and organisations that might make such action possible.

  • Ah always interesting to see SF “socialists” turn on the workers. Possibly because SF “socialists” like John O’Dowd is obviously the kinda guy who wouldnt close schools and cost Unison members their jobs.
    Well actually he is that kinda person.
    Such is I suppose the “responsibility” of high office.
    But ultimately its that responsibility that could lead to “blame” when John is looking for votes around Upper Bann in four or five years.
    And chatty Barry donning his T’rone shirt. And Daithí will take to Twitter. And our young Mayor. And the Andytown News ignoring it.
    But a quick scan of Facebook shows other parties on the picket lines with the “workers”.
    Of course its partly opportunistic. And would be more convincing if they actually went into Opposition……and a good tactic.
    The speed with which the people who Neil expresses admiration goes from “aux barricades mes amis” to “let them eat cake in the Long Gallery” is interesting.

    As Ive said Unison have a lot to answer for. And in the fullness of time some of their more mouthy stewards will get a promotion into management at work, be placed on public bodies, given a OBE and become poacher turned gamekeeper in the best Trade Union/Labourite…….and now Sinn Féin tradition (well not the OBE bit obviously).

    Been watching it all for nearly four decades.
    Unison have certainly wasted money getting their message across. Is there no Freedom of Information request that can be made to determine how much? But ultimately a Union is only as good as its members.
    And the biggest problem facing Unison is actually to get people to join. In 2011 nobody sees the point………which means that those (like Poots and O’Dowd) who exploit workers can get away with it.
    By the way did the Mayor of Belfast open a City Hall exhibition yesterday on the International Brigade in Spain? Good man Niall. Always support the workers. Thats what Sinn Féin does.

    And while Im on the subject …why does SF and SDLP do photo opportunities at workplaces that dont allow Unions.

    This week I heard a MLA say “Stormont sucks you in”.
    Sure does.
    Power corrupts and absolute power……….etc etc.

  • Tiarnan O Muilleoir


    I wouldn’t want this to turn into an internet bitch-fest, and generally I think it’s a fair piece of journalism (I agree with your support of the Unison strike obviously), so I’ll keep this to the point:

    I think you came to the FEE meeting with the intent of confirming your own prejudices. If you were looking for a room of unkempt student radicals with airy political ideas but light on the specifics then that’s what you got. If you were looking for an embryonic movement locating its own politics as well as their relation to the extant political institutions (both student-centered and non, both local and London-based) then that was also there.

    I don’t agree with Claire about your ‘undermining’ FEE but your focus on wider student apathy – while a good excuse for the inaction of the official student movement – is already well known to those of us working to combat that situation. That this political apathy is itself one expression of the neutering of the critical educational space by neo-liberal policies is also missing from your analysis.

    Sorry for speaking over you at the meeting but the final point I was hoping to make was this: FEE is not the SU. This isn’t a rejection of the official student bodies nor the very important tactical considerations you’ve highlighted. What it entails is a realisation that education cannot be made free (in both senses, financially and intellectually) through a struggle centered around students’ immediate economic situation alone; that we have to engage in an alternative pedagogical process that precedes the change we wish to see in education. We can’t win on a legal-political basis alone, we have to do ideological battle also and confront the neo-liberal narrative with one of the common good, and of education as an inherently political field. That involves working through and outside the SUs; of a tactical mixture of direct action, popular mobilisation, intellectual critique; as well as the more basic and equally important practical tasks you’ve highlighted.

    You’re welcome to come along and help build FEE rather than take it apart from a distance, and it was nice to finally meet you in the flesh. Slán.

  • Lorcan Mullen


    I don’t think I’m taking anything apart. By the way, I’m not a student and I’m not involved with the student unions anymore, nor particularly fond of their work. I’m not taking sides, just trying to report and analyse as best I can.

    “that we have to engage in an alternative pedagogical process that precedes the change we wish to see in education. We can’t win on a legal-political basis alone, we have to do ideological battle also and confront the neo-liberal narrative with one of the common good, and of education as an inherently political field. That involves working through and outside the SUs; of a tactical mixture of direct action, popular mobilisation, intellectual critique; as well as the more basic and equally important practical tasks you’ve highlighted.”

    I agree with that analysis, but remember, this is almost a year since Browne. I think FEE and other groups campaigning against austerity measures are struggling to focus their campaigns and gain traction, even when many of their underlying analyses have been proven quite unequivocally right since 2007. The article just points out that devolution exacerbates this problem.

    I was a union officer, and I’m proud of the work I did there, but I’m an awful lot more ambivalent about the work of the student unions, and an awful lot less hostile to FEE/NISA than some might tell you. I did a lot to make sure they got a hearing and were kept involved last year in spite of frequent, quite intense disagreements. My hunch is that this ‘movement’ will remain ’embryonic’. I’d be pleased to be proved wrong.