INTO votes for general strike strategy

Pic: Kevin Cooper
Pic: Kevin Cooper

SP: “Conference condemns the ongoing austerity agenda driven by Westminister and administered by the Northern Ireland Executive, including the assault on public sector workers jobs, pay conditions and pensions.
Conference condemns the failure of the leadership of the wider trade union movement to build a campaign of industrial action to challenge this agenda. Conference calls on Northern Committee to identify other trade unions in the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions who are willing to call for a general strike and having done so to build a campaign to bring this about through the TUC and ICTU”

This motion came from the Newry Branch. Why do you think the members in that branch felt the need to write such a motion?

Kevin: To be frank the reason was very simple – members of Newry Branch of INTO are dismayed at the meekness with which the assault on the public sector and the broader ‘austerity agenda’ has apparently been accepted by the leaders of organised workers. Members in Newry felt they had to offer some alternative strategy to the wide attitude of “we’re a small union, what can we do?”
Well, we decided that, for one thing, we can remember the core principal of trade unionism – that unity is strength. Some of us were aware of similar calls from organisations like the National Shop Stewards Network for grassroots pressure to be applied to union leaderships to work toward a general strike. I believe the PCS union is also embarking on something similar. There was no sense that this was an insignificant or isolated strategy. This is our attempt to feed into something bigger, to organise our discontent in to something positive. We knew there was a chance we would be laughed at, that some who always seem to know better than the rest of us would say “no chance” but we also know that there is anger among our members about what is happening to their pay and conditions and to the communities we serve. That anger has to be harnessed and organised into action. This motion is intended as a small step in that direction.

SP: How do you think INTO members have been effected by austerity?

INTO members have seen real terms cuts to their wages in the same way as all other public sector workers through the ongoing pay freeze and the increase in pension contributions. It has been estimated that we have lost between 15% and 19% of our pay in real terms, allowing for inflation, pay freezes and pension hikes. Most of us are now expected to work until we are 68 and perhaps even beyond that. The Education and Library Boards, which provide support for teachers and schools, have been decimated alongside professional development and training for teachers so we have very little by way of support to help us implement the never-ending rounds of ‘initiatives’ foisted on us by DENI and others. We are expected to do much more, with less, for less and for longer. A period of relative industrial ‘peace’ in this context is somewhat peculiar.

SP: Have you seen other cuts to the education service apart from the cuts to teachers salaries and pensions?

Education is at the heart of every community, so every cut in some way has an impact on schools. In many ways schools are the first to experience the immense social problems caused by increased poverty and deprivation. So, apart from the direct cuts to education for example, we are quite rightly tasked with challenging the link between social deprivation and educational under achievement. Yet no one is pointing out the fact that the huge cuts to welfare, that will be accellerated by the Welfare Reform Bill, will serve only to deepen the link between poverty and underachievement that we are trying to break. It is like asking the Fire Service to put fires out more quickly while the Government pours petrol on the flames.
Special Needs Education has been particularly badly hit with increasing class sizes and lack of resources and support. In my own school we have lost a number of support staff and seen significant reductions in budgets for resourcing classrooms and I know this is replicated across all sectors, primary, post primary, Controlled and Maintained. There have been redundancies, many of them voluntary, but these teachers, Teaching Assistants, Caretakers, Administrative staff and so on are not being replaced and that increases workload on everyone. A large number of non-teaching staff in education, teaching assistants in particular are on some pretty awful contracts on top of all that. We have also seen a great number of school closures and job losses as a result of the Departments rationalisation agenda.
We have 4,000 teachers on the Substitute Teacher Register, most of whom would welcome full-time employment if they could get it and I would estimate another few thousand, mainly younger teachers, working outside of Ireland, having been unable to secure work here.
All of this has the cumulative effect of increasing pressure on teacher’s workload and our student’s experience of education.

SP: Why did the Conference condemn the inaction of the trade union leadership?

Conference condemned the inaction of the trade union leadership because, in part, it is a bizarre and mystifying thing that in the face of the greatest upwards transfer of wealth in living memory, the blatant robbery of public assets and resources to pay for the excesses of the financiers and bankers, that the leadership of the union movement, North and South, East and West, could not or would not harness the anger of their millions of members to defend their interests. There are one or two notable exceptions to this (and as I write I have just been told about the tragic passing of Bob Crow, the most notable of all exceptions and a massive loss to the union movement) but they have been isolated and weakened by the sectoral interests and solo runs of other unions.
Looking back at the period since November the 30th 2011 it is apparent that there was a fragmentation of a short-lived united front in the labour movement. Some unions rushed to sign up to the ‘least worst’ deal they could get and others then followed suit and allowed campaigns to fizzle out and their erstwhile anger to subside. You could argue that we haven’t really heard anything of any substance relating to austerity from any of the main players in the largest unions or in ICTU or the TUC for the last couple of years. As I argued at Conference, it is for the leaders of those unions to point us in the direction of their ‘campaign’ against austerity if they disagree with our contentions. If they can point to more than a pile of leaflets, a couple of modest protest marches and a mural in Belfast then we must not have been paying attention! To echo what I said earlier there should be no industrial peace without industrial justice.

SP: What actions do you think the trade union leadership should have taken after the November 30th Strike?

In my opinion, following the strike of 2011 the leadership should have announced further dates for joint strike action and sought to co-ordinate other forms of non-strike action such as working to rule, across workplaces, public protest and so on. They should have been aiming to destabilise what was at that time a fragmented Westminster Coalition Government. There are various arguments about public support and so on but I am firmly of the opinion that the Left, bereft of any ownership or editorial control of a major media outlet is always unlikely to win the propaganda war, so we should not get hung up on it – fight the good fight, take the message to the workplace and the streets and exercise the best weapon we have always had – our labour. All of that takes leadership and co-ordination – we have the structures, what we needed was the willingness and that was sadly lacking.

SP: What do you think can be done now to build for a general strike?

A general strike will only happen if there is concerted pressure from rank and file trade union members. Our motion calls for the INTO leadership in the north of Ireland to identify those trade unions willing to work toward this end, recognising that this will require a monumental effort to achieve. It is a small start. I hope it is a significant start and I hope it encourages members of other unions to take similar steps. It’s about building pressure. Other groups have a role to play as well. I am not a member of the Socialist Party, or any other party for that matter, but I am aware of the call from the SP for a new Socialist/Trade Union based political party to represent working people and the unemployed. This would have the potential to organise the dis-satisfaction of those struggling against austerity and beyond that, for a more just economic system. The Network of Trade Union Activists, National Shop Stewards Network and similar grassroots groups within and outside of our unions will be massively important because it is from there that motions emerge, action is conceived and when the call for Industrial Action goes out it is the people involved in these groups that will be at the forefront of persuading their workmates to take action. Most importantly, and this is perhaps where those of us on the Left need to look at ourselves, we need to get our own house in order, overcome self-serving sectarian interests, organise ourselves and co-ordinate our call to action.

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