NIPSA is Northern Ireland’s largest trade union, representing public sector workers. Socialist Party members in the union take part in NIPSA Broad Left, which has held a majority on the General Council in recent years and ensured that NIPSA has been to the forefront in resisting austerity.
NIPSA played a pivotal role in making the public sector strike against Stormont austerity on March 13th last year a success. Unfortunately, it was one of the only unions which argued that it should not just be a one-off, but the start on a serious and ongoing campaign of action. NIC-ICTU – the umbrella body for trade unions here – has essentially resigned itself to the job losses, privatisation and corporation tax cut included in the Fresh Start Agreement, arguing that to stand up for members’ interests would jeopardise the ‘peace process’.
Given this sell-out, many workers understandably feel downbeat about the prospect of resisting attacks through action. In this context, the conservative NIPSA Unity group have won a majority on the General Council for the coming year. Members will judge them on the effectiveness of their partnership approach with management and politicians. We believe, unfortunately, it will be found wanting.
This does not mean, however, that the membership has swung to the right. At its Delegate Conference in June, NIPSA members voted to take a bold stand on a number of issues. By an overwhelming majority, the union reaffirmed its pro-choice position, calling for the 1967 Abortion Act to be extended to Northern Ireland. NIPSA backed the campaign against drilling in Woodburn forest near Carrickfergus.
Delegates voted to maintain NIPSA’s status as an explicitly public sector union. Unfortunately, this has since been ignored by the Unity-dominated General Council, who have re-admitted private sector trade union officials to membership.
The Conference saw NIPSA become one of the few trade unions to call for a ‘Leave’ vote in the EU referendum, pointing out the undemocratic, neo-liberal, militaristic and unreformable nature of this capitalist institution. This had an impact on the debate within Northern Ireland, breaking the populist right’s domination of opposition to the bosses’ EU. If this principled stand had been replicated by the wider labour movement, racist and xenophobic forces could have been challenged by a progressive, anti-establishment voice.
There was a majority vote for a union-wide debate and referendum on establishing a political fund, although it fell short of the two-thirds required to pass. Trade unionism is, by its nature, political but the lack of such a fund legally hamstrings NIPSA. For example, it prevents the union from calling on its members and the wider community not to vote for politicians who support or implement austerity. This vote was an important moral victory, which can be built on for the future.
NIPSA Broad Left won a clean sweep of the union’s lay officer positions. Socialist Party member Carmel Gates was re-elected as President with an increased majority. NIPSA Broad Left will use these positions to defend union democracy, ensure members’ wishes are respected and push for a bold approach to defending public services over the coming year.