The challenges facing NIPSA members

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Socialist Party NIPSA Conference Bulletin 2014

We are being told every day that the economic crisis is at an end and that the economy is growing. Our members live in a different reality. The cuts are continuing and real pay continues to fall.

In the coming year the key challenges facing our union are to continue to resist the austerity agenda of the Con-Dem Coalition government and the Assembly, and to fight for pay rises to address the pay cuts we have suffered over the last years.

Our union has a proud tradition of campaigning against sectarianism and taking action to counter sectarian threats and attacks. The issues of austerity and sectarianism are organically linked. Likewise the need for our movement to combat the grwoth of racist attacks must be emphasised.

Increasing poverty increases alienation in working class communities and ultimately sharpens sectarianism division and racism. Fighting the cuts and countering sectarianism and racism are one struggle.

Fighting the Cuts

The cuts continue and in some cases are intensifying. Working class people have fought cuts in health and other services but a generalised fight back has not developed. In part this is precisely because the local politicians have been careful to move slowly. The full impact of so-called Welfare Reform has not yet been felt, for example. The Assembly has also been successful in convincing many that it has no alternative but to implement Westminster imposed cuts.

The main Assembly parties have also shamelessly played a sectarian game over the cuts. They argue over where the cuts should fall-raising tensions by suggesting that some cuts are hitting Catholics more than Protestants, or vice versa. And the main parties simply use rows and conflict over sectarian issues as a distraction.

The key reason why the anti-cuts struggle hasn’t developed to a greater extent is that most trade union leaders consciously demobilised the movement which was developing in the autumn of 2011. The one day public sector strike on November 30th 2011 was an outstanding success but was followed within days by an organised betrayal on pensions. It has been very difficult since to convince working class people, including activists, that a fight back is possible.

It remains the case that resolute action is necessary to fight the cuts. Our union must continue to consider well-planned industrial action when this is possible.

It is also important to co-ordinate with other unions and community anti-cuts campaigns when we can.

In the next year the health service in Northern Ireland will face a huge deficit in funding. The result will be sharp cuts. In 2012 Health Minister Edwin Poots backed down on plans to immediately close nearly every NHS care home in Northern Ireland after a storm of protest. The Trusts, the minister and the Executive thought that they could push through their changes with ease. Instead the issue became a lightning rod for accumulated anger on the cuts.

There are clear lessons from these events. There is widespread anger at the cuts and the Executive can be defeated. If we prepare carefully and move resolutely at the right time we can win again. A trade union organised demonstration in defence of our health service this autumn would be an important stepping stone to galvanise the anger of all those who do not accept the logic of the cuts. It remains the case that resolute action is necessary to fight the cuts. Our union must continue to consider well-planned industrial action when this is possible. It is also important to co-ordinate with other unions and community anti-cuts campaigns when we can.

In the next year the health service in Northern Ireland will face a huge deficit in funding. The result will be sharp cuts. In 2012 Health Minister Edwin Poots backed down on plans to immediately close nearly every NHS care home in Northern Ireland after a storm of protest. The Trusts, the minister and the Executive thought that they could push through their changes with ease. Instead the issue became a lightning rod for accumulated anger on the cuts.

There are clear lessons from these events. There is widespread anger at the cuts and the Executive can be defeated. If we prepare carefully and move resolutely at the right time we can win again.

A trade union organised demonstration in defence of our health service this autumn would be an important stepping stone to galvanise the anger of all those who do not accept the logic of the cuts.

Fighting for Real Pay Rises

The trumpeting of the “recovery” can work in our favour. If the economy is picking up, as we hear every day, then working class people will ask “where is our recovery?” The sense that the recovery amounts to no more than the rich piling up even greater profits will deepen anger on living standards. In the run up to next year’s general election a generalised movement on pay may develop as working class people fight for a real pay rise.

Public sector workers have suffered real pay cuts over the last period of 10-15% or more. Health service workers have suffered pay cuts for eight straight years. Forty thousand health workers earn less than the living wage threshold. The Con-Dems and the Northern Ireland Executive have already made it clear that the “recovery” does not mean any let up in the cuts, including cuts in pay.

Heath service workers have been offered 1% this year but only 40% of staff will actually receive this paltry rise due to clauses in the offer. Health unions have now commenced a consultation ballot on pay. NIPSA is balloting its members alongside the other NJC unions. If staff covered by the NHS and NJC pay awards vote for action a movement on pay involving many hundreds of thousands is possible in the coming months.

The immediate task is to ensure that our own members have the confidence to vote for action on pay. Linking up with other public sector unions in the workplaces is a necessary step to ensure a solid turnout if strike action is taken. Workers are cautious, and understandably so. A clear lead from this conference when we return to our workplaces in the coming weeks and months is essential to re-build the confidence which was lost after November 30th.

Challenging Sectarianism

Last year’s conference recognised the threat to our members and all working class people posed by sectarianism and sectarian attacks. Motions were passed which committed the union to campaign strongly against sectarianism and to prepare for concrete action, up to and including strike action if necessary, to counter sectarian threats and attacks.

The lesson of the last forty years is that the working class can effectively counter sectarian threats and attacks. NIPSA has a key role to play in preparing the way for such united action in the coming period. Discussions amongst the widest possible numbers of NIPSA members must continue so that activists are confident and well-placed to counter sectarianism.

In August 1969 it was the action of class-conscious shop-stewards which prevented conflict on the streets spreading and escalating to an even greater extent than it did. There was widespread violence, in Belfast in particular, but there were many working class areas, including some which were to see sharp sectarian conflict in the following years, where peace prevailed. The reason for this is that trade union and community activists came onto the streets in joint patrols to maintain calm and to prevent sectarian elements from stoking up trouble. Of decisive importance was the organized trade union intervention in key workplaces, in particular in the shipyard where a mass meeting of 8000 workers voted against any attempt to foment sectarian division.

In the second half of the 1980’s there was a series of strikes in the public sector against sectarian threats and attacks. Activists working in the DHSS and the Housing Executive led at least four walkouts between 1986 and 1988. Such walkouts were recognised to be successful by the workers involved as on each occasion paramilitary threats were either publically withdrawn or quietly forgotten.

The most recent mass demonstrations against sectarian attacks took place on January 18th 2001 when up to 100,000 took to the streets, with rallies in Belfast, Derry, Enniskillen, Newry, Strabane and Omagh. These events were of decisive importance. The reason we should remember them today is that similar mass action may be necessary again in the future.

We will be best placed to act in the future if we examine carefully the lessons of the past. And we must carefully look at the present too -t he cuts and increasing social deprivation are factors in the development of sectarian conflict.

Working People Need a Political Voice

Last week’s local and European elections once again illustrated the lack of a viable and credible alternative politics for most in Northern Ireland. There were only a handful of candidates who represented an alternative in any sense. There is no mass political party which has a base in both Protestant and Catholic areas and speaks up for trade union members and working class people in general.

There are of course a number of political parties which pull in large votes from working class people. These parties however are based entirely in one community or another. Parties which base themselves on sectarian division act to reinforce that division.

The dominant political voices remain the DUP and Sinn Fein after last week’s elections. Both parties have working class support but do not point the way forward for the working class. The SDLP and the UUP are no different. The only party which can claim to garner votes in both communities, the Alliance Party, is a right wing party which is proud of its record on imposing austerity and has actively adopted a hard line anti-union approach.

Half of potential voters do not turn out to vote. There are many reasons for this of course but large numbers do not vote in disgust at the antics of sectarian parties. The Socialist Party believes that it is possible to build a mass party which wins votes in both communities by putting forward policies which unite working class and young people. Saying that it is possible is not to say that it is easy. There are many barriers in our way. Even the layers who have “had enough” of the status quo are not voting for an alternative because they do not see any alternative out there.

An important development in these elections was the support that unions gave to working class candidates. Unite gave financial support to both Socialist Party candidates in the election (Tommy Black in the Titanic Ward and Paddy Meehan in the Botanic Ward, both in Belfast). Unite also gave support to Socialist Party member Donal O’Cofaigh who stood as an anti-fracking candidate in Fermanagh and who just missed out on a seat. The Fire Brigades Union continued its proud record of backing working class and socialist candidates.

The general election is only one year away and the next Assembly election two years away. We must strive to ensure that an alternative is on offer at these elections. There is a clear warning for the trade union and working class movement in the results of last week’s election. The votes for hard line unionist parties such as the TUV, the PUP and the UKIP reflects the turmoil on the streets over the issue of flags over the last 18 months. The votes for candidates who represent the various strands of dissident republicanism reflect the increase in alienation of layers of working class Catholics.

The victory of Gerry Carroll, standing as People Before Profit in West Belfast, is a positive indication of the mood in working class areas. Carroll is a strong local candidate who is seen as being prepared to work hard on the ground and take up issues that affect working people.

There is clearly a layer in Catholic working class areas which is disaffected and looking for an alternative. In a number of Catholic working class areas this mood was captured by candidates who are linked to various shades of dissident republicanism but who sometimes stood on an anti-cuts platform. All these candidates clearly targeting Sinn Fein for its role in implementing the cuts.

Councillors who are linked to dissident republicanism in in any way are not capable of building a real alternative. Councillors who have a clear view of the interests of the working class as a whole, not the working class in one or other community only, can be part of building the alternative. It is important that socialists take positions which are clearly independent of both sectarian camps, especially on issues reflecting sectarian division. Every activist who does so can play an important role in developing class politics in the coming years.

We need a new party in Northern Ireland, based on trade unionists, those community activists who are not tied to the sectarian parties and young people who reject the sterile status quo. To build mass support on the ground a new party would need to actively combat sectarianism in all its forms and the pose an alternative to the right wing policies of the old parties.

At previous conferences delegates have voted in large numbers to take the first steps to move NIPSA in a political direction, though not by the necessary two-thirds majority. This year we hope that delegates will be convinced by the arguments and a majority will vote for the motion which will allow a full democratic debate throughout the union on this key issue.

SOCIALIST PARTY WINS DUBLIN WEST BY-ELECTION!

The election of Socialist Party Cllr Ruth Coppinger in Dublin West to the Dail is a major victory for the fight against austerity in the South.

Faced with a dirty tricks smear campaign from political opponents, including Sinn Fein, the election of Ruth alongside 13 Anti-Austerity Alliance candidates across the South is a ringing endorement for a major struggle of ordinary people against the Southern governments austerity.

Socialist Party European candidate in Dublin, Paul Murphy, narrowly lost his seat. It is now clear that one left seat could have been won, making the decision of People Before Profit to stand a serious error which split the left vote.

The elections in the South has revealed a massive anger against all the establishment parties with the Labour Party in particuar receiving a hammering. The Socialist Party will use our influence to raise the need of a new mass party to represent working class people in the coming period.

 

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