NIPSA: Fighting strategy needed for members

The Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance holds its annual conference in June. It will be a controversial event as the conference must draw up a balance sheet of the year just passed and work out policy for the year ahead. For 46,000 NIPSA members the last year has been extremely difficult. They have seen their living standards depressed by inflation, services salami sliced, a huge increase in pressure and stress in the workplace and increasing attacks on public services by right-wing Assembly politicians. The year ahead looks even worse as the Assembly politicians feel freer to press ahead with cuts now that they have the elections out of the way. 

Right-wing have given no lead

In the battle against cuts NIPSA holds a special position amongst Northern Ireland trade unions. Not only is it by far the largest union it is also the only union in Northern Ireland which holds a significant membership in all parts of the civil and public service. From this position NIPSA has at times in the past been able to play a role in pulling together resistance and has been a focal point for all unions seeking to fight. If NIPSA were to use all its potential muscle to fight the cuts it can significantly strengthen the struggle. Unfortunately NIPSA leadership has been under the control of the right wing who won a thumping majority of 21 to 4 on the executive body the General Council in 2010. Under this right-wing domination the union has failed to use its muscle and has had a year of directionless leadership.

NIPSA must fight the Assembly’s cuts

NIPSA had initially playing a significant role in developing a campaign against cuts. A combination of information to members and protests against cuts and struggles around specific issues such as special needs summer schemes had begun to galvanise resistance. The campaign was steadily building last year and had begun to involve wider layers of workers and activists but in the autumn NIPSA leadership along with the other unions brought real opposition to a shuddering halt. Since then the politicians have in reality had a free hand and the unions have restricted themselves to helping to manage the cuts as part of an unofficial partnership with management and politicians. Whilst they announced one grandiose campaign after another in reality they had no intention of delivering. This failed strategy means that hundreds of public and civil service jobs have already been lost, real term pay has been cut and services to the most vulnerable have been hammered. The other effect of the right-wing strategy has been the partial demoralisation of activists who were developing real resistance to cuts. And incredibly the politicians in Stormont have been able to get away with this massacre of public services without taking any significant flack from the trade union movement. Indeed where activists have tried to hold politicians to account, such as over privatisation of housing, they have encountered stiff resistance from the union tops!

Opportunities to develop a fighting democratic NIPSA

Despite this failure of the leadership, NIPSA activists have been able to maintain local resistance and have played a significant role in fighting back. NIPSA conference provides an opportunity to build on that successful work and to correct the mistakes of the last year. Despite all the difficulties an honest assessment of the real situation with cuts and a change of direction by the union can quickly change things on the ground. If a lead is given the morale of activists, union members and working class communities can quickly rise again and the latent power of the working class can be turned against the politicians and their big business bosses.

A proposal for multi union strike action in the autumn is now under discussion by unions.  If cuts are seriously opposed between now and the autumn and there is proper preparation for the multi union strike action then NIPSA and the union movement can rise again and take the fight to the politicians and bosses. If unions link this action with the communities and with political parties like the Socialist Party who have already begun the fight against cuts then we may stand a real chance of halting the total destruction of public services.

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