ON 16 February 2001, the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA), Northern Ireland's largest trade union, came within a hair's breadth of passing into the hands of the left.
In the annual election for the General Council, the ruling body of the union, left candidates won 12 of the 25 seats, one short of the number required for a majority. Four of the candidates to win seats were members of the Socialist Party. This major earthquake in the elections which comes on the back of a year of rising militancy in the union will have serious repercussions for the trade union movement and the new Stormont government.
NIPSA has 38,000 members across the civil and public service in Northern Ireland. In effect the union has the power to close down all the vital areas of government and many parts of the economy at a stroke. The union is mainly white collar based but has increased its blue collar numbers particularly in education and health. It has a long tradition of a vocal and active Socialist Party opposition to the conservative leadership at the top of the union and has been the starting point of many of the most important industrial struggles in the North.
With this rich history and powerful membership the tasks and challenges facing the left in the union are serious not only for the future of NIPSA members but for the overall development of a socialist alternative to capitalism in Ireland.
A dramatic change
The election transformed the position of the left in the leadership from one where they had two members on the council to having 12. Some of the longest serving stalwarts of the old leadership were kicked off and the up and coming second layer of the union bureaucracy have been decimated.
Naturally such a dramatic change did not happen overnight. The foundation was laid over years of day to day work in the union by left activists, the increase in determination to fight by union members and a correct understanding of this change of mood by the left who, because they are based in the branches, are more in touch with the members.
A number of notable struggles have taken place in the public service last year. "Crisis in child care" strikes in the health service and the term-time dispute in education are battles that ended in enormous successes for the workers involved. These disputes led to a strengthening of the union, an increase in confidence amongst members and an increase in the standing of the leaders of the disputes who, in every case, were left activists.
What was clear was that in both these areas the conservative bureaucracy was well placed to take the lead, holding positions which they could have used to direct developments but in each case they not only did not develop the struggle but in fact stood opposed to the very idea of fighting at all. They claimed that there was no interest amongst members and that the battle was unwinnable.
When a leadership is so acutely out of touch with members and so completely incapable of giving a lead, the union's members will try to remove them. This process is beginning to develop in all the unions but has developed more speedily in NIPSA than in other unions because the years of groundwork had been laid and because, for historical reasons, NIPSA has been a relatively democratic union. NIPSA's bureaucracy is of course only democratic up to a point. In fact, serious consideration was given to annulling the election but no excuse could be found. Currently a legal challenge to the result is being considered.
The members of NIPSA have taken the step of removing a section of the old leadership and replacing it with a new one that has promised changes. Although the left did not take a majority they are the largest single grouping on the council. The right wing conservatives are split three ways. No issues of principle are involved but the right-wing factions hate the sight of each other and may not be able to pull together to stop the left. If this happens the ability of the left grouping to deliver a fighting democratic union will be tested and the question of the programme the left adopts will be of vital importance.
The left grouping stood under the banner of "Time for change - Reclaim your union" putting forward a collective commitment to: fight for members interests; use resources for members; implement members' decisions; rebuild branches; make officials work for members. In addition, individual candidates put forward their own programme. Seven Socialist Party candidates stood on the "time for change" ticket but also clearly put forward a socialist position both in official manifestos and in party leaflets. While recognising that the "time for change" programme is limited and not fully rounded out, for the Socialist Party the opportunity to stand together with serious, committed and respected activists was an enormous plus. Our role in the unions is to assist in developing the militancy and fighting capacity of the unions and to work with left activists to achieve change while developing a conscious socialist grouping. The "time for change" campaign gives an opportunity to do this.
Prepare for change
The "time for change" group will have to prepare for its responsibilities seriously. The new General Council comes into being after the annual conference in May and, by then, the left will have to have a more fully developed programme.
NIPSA, like all unions, faces a number of obvious problems: a world economic downturn is likely; the Northern Ireland assembly is committed to privatisation and cuts in public services; and central government in London is openly hostile to public sector spending These problems will mean increasing attacks on the pay; terms and conditions and ultimately jobs of members. Shrewd negotiating will not resolve these difficulties The left must put for- ward a concrete fighting programme to resist attacks and win improvements. NIPSA's numerical and social strength must be brought into play in a massive mobilisation to defend workers interests.
Northern Ireland's political problems also pose challenges. Sectarian tensions can at any time bubble to the surface and, in the long run, a return to the breakdown of society into warring sectarian camps is not impossible. At pre- sent a number of walkouts by health workers have happened following sectarian attacks. To properly defend members, NIPSA must be prepared to lead this development and organise resistance to sectarianism from any quarter.
Resistance to sectarianism is of such importance that the unions must be prepared to use any means necessary to ensure its success. In addition, the Northern Ireland Assembly is packed with conservative bigots who -although at this point content to accept the privileges of power in exchange for their good behaviour - are quite capable of vicious right wing sectarian attacks on the working class. It is absolutely essential that NIPSA as a leading trade union comes out clearly in favour of a political challenge to the conservative bigots. The union's official "non-political" stance must be broken. To do so the left must win the membership to a clear position for an independent working class party backed by the unions and challenging for power in the Assembly.
The internal life of the union is also of vital importance. NIPSA is a relatively small union by British standards and its power lies in the fact that it has traditionally had a strong activist base and branches that functioned well. Over the last number of years this base has decreased. Branches are inactive and in some cases do not have even have officers.
Large sections of the union are now run by all-powerful officials, NIPSA has 53 full time officials employed by the union and almost the same number again paid for by employers. These officials in many ways are the real power in the union. They direct the day to day activities of the union they have the power to stop the implementation of decisions taken by the members either by apathy or obstruction. Not all the officials however can be lumped together and some do carry out a good role in the union but in the vast majority of cases their role is one of doing as little as possible and perpetuating their own power base.
Within the elected bodies of the union the officials have a considerable weight. 11 out of the 25 members of the current General Council hold full time official positions paid for by employers. They; along with their allies, have been a fetter on the democratic functioning of these bodies. They prefer their activities to be carried out behind closed doors and play the same obstructive role. The left must take steps to develop the democracy of the union. It is the life-blood which will be needed if future struggles are to be successful. Democracy must mean that all parts of the union are open to criticism, debate and discussion. Those holding negotiating positions must be elected and subject to recall (this is particularly important when employers are paying the wages). Membership decisions must be carried out and the structures of the union must fall under the control of the members and the elected representatives.
Transform the union
All the various aspects of a programme must be pulled together. The "time for change" campaign should become a membership-based campaign to transform the union and form a fighting democratic union. The General Council elections represent a small step in the right direction. It is a sea change for the left in NIPSA and points to the future in other unions. There will be no automatic increase in successes and at times the situation will fall back but we can confidently say that a major opportunity is in front of us not only to build on the concrete gains that have been won for members but to build powerful unions which can play a key role in the process of transforming Irish society.
For other articles about events in NIPSA visit the sitemap.
For other reports of trade union struggles go to the Trade Union section of the site.
To see more about what the Socialist Party stands for visit our main site