NIPSA: Public sector workers need a democratic, fighting union

Statement from Socialist Party activists in NIPSA

This week, the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA) is having an online conference, the first general conference of the union in two years. A key issue for discussion is the effect of the pandemic on the working conditions of public sector workers, many of whom have been on the frontline in health, education and other sectors.

The conference must look at how management and politicians have used the pandemic to further undermine working conditions and continue now long-established policies of below-inflation ‘pay rises’. NIPSA must prepare itself for a turbulent period to come, as workers are once again asked to pay for a crisis not of their making. As one of the largest unions in Northern Ireland, NIPSA has an important role to play in building a fightback.

General Secretary election – Turner threatens turn to the right

NIPSA is also in the middle of a General Secretary election. While the policy of the union should be decided by the conference and lay structures, there is no denying that the General Secretary significantly influences the day-to-day functioning of the union. The General Council (NIPSA’s central executive body) has nominated one of its members – Paul Turner, affiliated to the so-called ‘independent’ group – for the position. 

Paul Turner postures as being ‘the members’ candidate’, with an aim of restoring democracy in the union. Yet his grouping on the General Council is guilty of a litany of undemocratic practices, including refusing to organise hustings during the election campaign, so members can hear where the candidates stand. He represents a right-wing faction in the union, which rails against ‘1980s-style industrial action’. His campaign points away from the type of NIPSA, public sector workers need – a union where the members are fully involved and in control, and a union prepared to use the full strength of collective action to win improvements for public sector workers.

The other candidates – Dooley Harte, Antoinette McMillen and Carmel Gates – are all prominent officials in the union. Carmel Gates – a former member of the Socialist Party – won the endorsement of the Broad Left group and, based on her experience and position, is best placed to defeat Paul Turner, who would shift the union significantly in the wrong direction.

We need a fighting, grassroots Left

However, Socialist Party members in NIPSA are critical of this campaign, which is qualitatively different to previous campaigns organised by the Broad Left. The campaign has so far focused on Carmel Gates’s experience, but has not addressed the key challenges faced by public sector workers and NIPSA. Nor has it clearly articulated the need for socialist politics and the need to transform NIPSA into an organisation genuinely controlled by the members. The weakness of this material gives us no confidence that Carmel Gates’s election would result in anything but a continuation of the status quo in the union, rather than the radical change in direction members need.

In our view, there is a need for a broader discussion amongst activists and members about the key issues facing public sector workers, with the aim of building a vibrant, campaigning and rank-and-file left, focused on transforming NIPSA. There is a need to build a left that can fight at every level of the union. This requires more than engaging in campaigns to win this or that position in the NIPSA structures. It requires a fight to transform NIPSA into a union which is fully democratic.

Previous Broad Left campaigns called for election of officials and committed candidates to living on wages connected to those of NIPSA members. Faced with a demagogic campaign from a right-wing candidate claiming to ‘give power back to the members’, the left should be unequivocal in the call for genuine democracy and accountability in our union, including the demand that all officials directly involved in negotiation should be elected and live on a worker’s wage.

Build a determined and coordinated fightback

We need a combative industrial strategy, particularly on the question of pay and conditions. Civil servants have once again received an insulting pay offer of 1% from Stormont, which they are told is a reward for their hard work! In health, workers who have been on the front line of this pandemic are demanding action to deal with unsafe staffing levels, as well as a 15% pay rise. This is far beyond the meagre offers we have seen from the Tories and local parties. Clearly, the approach emphasised by all candidates of ‘making a case to the politicians’ is not enough. Winning real pay rises will require a serious campaign of industrial action, linking up with other unions where possible. In that regard, NIPSA’s leadership should learn from the failure to adequately coordinate with other unions during the health strikes of 2019 and early 2020.

NIPSA can play a central role in challenging the two tier-workforce that exists across much of the public sector, with agency staff having fewer rights and entitlements than those directly contracted. Serious resources should be allocated to a campaign to recruit and organise agency workers across the public sector, demanding that these workers are brought in-house, with equal pay and conditions. In our view, this is not a secondary issue, but crucial to the future of the union.

Defend working-class unity!

NIPSA has a constitutional commitment to independent and anti-sectarian trade unionism. The recent rioting and ongoing political turmoil around the Northern Ireland Protocol reflect how important this is for our union and the broader workers’ movement. The danger of a one-sided approach – not rooted in the need to unite workers – can be seen in the recent resignations from Unison, in response to a clumsy statement regarding army medics in the NHS, which lacked insight and sensitivity (for more info, see here).

While respecting everyone’s national identity and aspiration, we need to resist moves which threaten to divide our movement. Trade unions must remain bodies which unite workers from all backgrounds. For example, Trade Unionists for a New & United Ireland – connected to Sinn Féin – seeks to inject discussion on the question of the border into the workers’ movement in a crude and divisive way. Some members of the ‘independent’ group are signatories to this initiative. All candidates in the election should clearly state their attitude to this initiative and the relationship they believe NIPSA should have to sectarian and pro-capitalist parties.

Socialist Party members in NIPSA are clear – having union leaders prepared to challenge sectarianism is only one aspect of what is necessary. We also need strong workplace organisation, including union reps capable of and prepared to act independently. This means not cosying up to politicians but building unity in offices, workplaces, departments and in communities, to improve the conditions of all workers. It means challenging sectarian forces when they try to raise their head, as brilliantly exemplified by NIPSA members who took industrial action against paramilitary threats to workers throughout the years, and most recently exemplified by bus drivers in Belfast.

Fight for socialist policies

Similarly, NIPSA has a constitutional position in favour of a socialist economy. We are in the midst of the greatest crisis for capitalism since the 1930s. This crisis comes after a decade of austerity for workers. A new generation of young workers are more open to socialist ideas, and the concept that ‘there is no alternative’ to this system has been severely undermined. NIPSA should be clear in articulating a socialist alternative to capitalist crisis – including looming environmental catastrophe – and how that alternative can be built. That is why we favour NIPSA establishing a political fund, so it can fight both industrially and politically. 

Finally, NIPSA has a positive track record of challenging racism, sexism and oppression in all its forms. The NIPSA conference should continue on that course. Socialist Party members are unequivocal in supporting the paper to the conference that commits the union to campaigning for gender-neutral toilets in public sector buildings. This is an important step to challenging transphobia in workplaces and society.

Public sector workers face many challenges and NIPSA has an important role in the battles to come. We encourage any member of NIPSA to discuss further with Socialist Party activists in the union about how we can rise to these challenges and transform our union.

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