Major traffic disruption is expected as trade union strikes bring public transport to a standstill on Thursday. School support workers are also taking to picket lines in a protest about pay.
The latest industrial action comes as legislation is to be debated which could lead to the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive in the coming days. The UK government has committed funding to cover public sector pay deals if Stormont returns.Those on strike include more than 3,000 public transport workers from the Unite, Siptu and GMB unions.
About 800 Unite members employed by the Education Authority (EA) as non-teaching staff are also walking out. This includes school bus transport staff, school caterers, administration staff and classroom assistants who will also be taking action on Friday.
On 18 January, 16 trade unions and tens of thousands of public sector workers took part in one of Northern Ireland’s largest strikes, affecting many sectors including health.
Thursday will be a sixth day of action for transport workers since December who have warned further action could continue. Trade unions have been calling for the Northern Ireland secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, to release funds to allow Stormont to give a pay increase to public sector workers.
Mr Heaton-Harris has said this is a devolved matter and has promised funds will be available when an executive is in place. Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government since February 2022.
However, this week, the Democratic Unionist Party said it would end its boycott after reaching a deal with the UK government on resolving its concerns over post-Brexit trade matters.
After legislation is passed, the Northern Ireland Assembly is expected to be recalled, possibly on Friday or Saturday. However, some trade unions have said that until Stormont is up and running, they will continue to strike. Davy Thompson, from Unite, said that “until there is government in NI, there is no government in NI” and the deal is “not enough” to call off the strike.
Impact on businesses
Industry body Retail NI said it welcomed progress in the restoration of Stormont and called for unions to abandon their strikes “as a gesture of goodwill”.
Both retail and hospitality groups had criticised public transport workers for taking strike action in the run-up to Christmas, traditionally their busiest periods. In response to the latest February action, Translink said it remained “fully committed to entering constructive pay negotiations”.
“We have urged our colleagues to reconsider this industrial action that will unfortunately further disrupt bus and rail services that so many of our passengers rely on and exacerbate the financial pressures on Translink. DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson spoke to representatives from teaching unions outside Hillsborough Castle
A spokesperson from the Department for Infrastructure said: “People should expect delays during the strike period and allow extra time for their journeys.
“Bus lanes will remain operational during the industrial action for cyclists, motorcyclists, permitted taxis, any operating buses, which could include buses provided by health and education authorities, and the emergency services. Bus lane enforcement will continue as normal.”
Regarding the education strike, a spokesperson for the EA said: “This action is likely to result in disruption to EA transport (yellow buses), some school meals and cleaning services.”
They added it would also impact on “the availability of classroom assistants which very regrettably means that a small number of schools will close to pupils”. The authority said it had asked for a derogation for special school staff, but this had been declined.
Their statement continued that “all our staff deserve to be paid at a fair rate for the outstanding job they do, however, we recognise the challenges in delivering this in the context of an inadequate education budget”. The EA has warned that children will also be affected getting to school because of the public transport strike. It said more than 57,000 children and young people in receipt of bus passes will be impacted, as well as fare paying pupils.
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