Strike hits Derry services as workers demand ‘realistic’ pay offer

Numerous local Council services and facilities shut down yesterday as workers took to the picket line at the start of a week long strike to demand fairer pay.

Derry & Strabane Council workers are among UNITE union members across the north taking part in industrial action this week alongside Housing Executive maintenance staff and some school transport workers, with knock-on impacts on services across different sectors.

Black and blue bin collections have been cancelled, and yesterday recycling centres at Pennyburn, Glendermott Road, Strathfoyle, Eglinton, Claudy and Park were all closed along with numerous others across the Strabane district. The Council’s free bulky waste service was halted for the week while street cleansing services are “severely impacted”.

Templemore, Brooke Park and several other leisure centres were also closed, with limited services at Foyle Arena and no access to swimming pools this week. Many gated Council-owned public parks and play areas have been locked up for the week and Council-owned pitches are closed, with bookings cancelled.

Council employees and trade unionists picket Derry City Council Offices on Strand Road on Monday afternoon as part of industrial action take over better pay demand. Photo: George Sweeney. DER2212GS – 013

A Council spokesperson said it ‘fully respects’ the right of staff to take industrial action following an official ballet and confirmed that it expects ‘considerable disruption’ throughout this week. Daily updates on which services are to be impacted will provided by the Council this week.

Gareth Scott, Regional organiser with UNITE, told the Journal that the 1.75% pay offer tabled to its members here and elsewhere was widely rejected following a decade of challenges, not least working on the frontline during COVID.

Union members are striking for improved pay at all eleven local Councils, the Education Authority, the NI Housing Executive, and at several local colleges.

The strike follows an overwhelming vote to reject a pay offer from local government employers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland for the year 2021-22. The union said the pay offer would mean “another real terms pay cut and comes after eleven years of pay freezes”.

Council employees picket Derry City Council Offices on Strand Road on Monday afternoon as part of industrial action take over better pay demand. Photo: George Sweeney. DER2212GS – 014

Unite is seeking localised settlements to deliver improved pay, with the other two signatory unions in the bargaining processes of the ‘Green Book’ NJC having agreed the 1.75% pay offer.

The union is seeking locally-agreed improvements through raising pay grades, reduced working hours, more paid holidays and other benefits.

Mr Scott said: “Our members in local authorities’ pay in real terms has been cut by 22% in the last 12 years.

“They were key workers providing an essential service throughout the pandemic and obviously now as we are all aware we have the cost of living crisis, inflation, National Insurance increase and employers offering 1.75% as far as our members are concerned is ridiculous.

Council employees and trade unionists picket Derry City Council Offices on Strand Road on Monday afternoon as part of industrial action take over better pay demand. Photo: George Sweeney. DER2212GS – 012

“On the back of everything they have faced in the last 10 years through this pandemic and now this cost of living crisis it is just not realistic. They have been forced to take action because the employers have stopped negotiating. Everybody knows what is happening with the cost of living and 1.75% doesn’t go anywhere near that.”

Mr Scott said that they were getting “a reasonable response” from members of the public expressing solidarity with the workers.

He said the purpose of the strike is to call on local Councils and other employers “to come to the negotiating table with a view to reaching local agreements on pay and provide a more realistic offer to our members”. “But if the employers refuse to negotiate then we will be calling for further action and we will support the workers,” he added.

A number of local Councillors have also voiced their support for those taking industrial action.

Four Independent Derry and Strabane Councillors, Sea Carr, Paul Gallagher, Gary Donnelly and Raymond Barr called for the ‘solidarity closure’ of Council offices.

Colr. Gallagher said: “We can’t blame council workers who are disgusted at this derisory 1.75% pay offer given the massive hikes in cost of living and inflation. In real terms, essential workers are being expected to accept a pay cut. Suspending council business at strike locations is the very least we can do to demonstrate our support for their struggle.”

Colr. Carr said: “Cost of living increases, fuel poverty and now wage cuts. How much more are working people expected to take from their employers? The very least we can all do for these brave striking workers is to attend the picket lines, suspend our work at council offices and send solidarity best wishes to striking workers.”

Sinn Féin Councillor Sandra Duffy also expressed her party’s solidarity.

She said: “Council workers provide a vital public service to everyone in our city, such as bin collections, upkeep of our parks and facilities and much more. They deserve fair pay and conditions.

“Every effort must be made to support workers and families as cost of living and the price of heating homes and fueling cars continues to rise.”

People Before Profit Councillor Shaun Harkin meanwhile said: “The decision to take industrial action isn’t reached lightly. Workers have been treated with contempt by Westminster and Stormont. We’re in a cost of living crisis and many workers are struggling to pay their bills. Workers are being forced to strike because their demands for a fair pay rise have been ignored.”

Meanwhile the Council said it has engaged with Unite “to successfully secure an exemption for essential services such as burials at the Cemeteries” as well as for the Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages services.