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Civil servants narrowly reject strike call

Andrew Johnson

4th February 2006

Members of NIPSA in the Northern Ireland Civil Service have narrowly rejected their union leadership’s call for an all-out strike by the margin of 6,835 (53.15%) to 6023 (46.84%). The strike call had come as part of a dispute over the government’s insulting 0.2% pay offer for the 2005-06 year, which was imposed as soon as the union announced its rejection of the offer following a consultation exercise in December.

In the consultation meetings, an unprecedented 98% had voted to reject the pay offer and 74% in favour of balloting for an all-out strike. The anger of staff was unmistakable, and was compounded by an incredibly sanctimonious letter from Peter Hain which effectively told staff they should be happy with their lot because Gordon Brown wouldn’t allow him any more money. Other aspects of the pay situation had got staff’s backs up – the effective 9% pay cut of the last few years, which introduces regional pay by the back door; the situation where, last October, ministers had to introduce a special pay scale for the lowest-paid staff to (just) prevent them falling below the new £5.05 minimum wage; the revelation that civil servants at the Welsh Office, where Hain has his other part-time job, were earning on average £3000 more than their Northern Ireland counterparts; and the government’s trick of abolishing band minima and introducing new maxima, which serves the double purpose of allowing increments to pass for pay rises and ensuring nobody reaches the going rate for their job.

Lack of confidence

So why did the ballot fail? Although union activists knew the ballot would be difficult to win, in the past consultation votes have been fairly representative. The unprecedentedly high turnout in the ballot – over 64% – shows this wasn’t the case with this ballot. We can say that the 47% Yes vote was a vote for the leadership’s proposed course of action, and gives us some idea of the possibilities for organising militancy. But the 53% No vote is harder to interpret. It seems unlikely that the No vote was a solid vote for the right, as virtually nobody has spoken up to say they were happy with the 0.2% offer.

While there are some members, mostly at higher grades, who oppose any action, these are a small minority. Anecdotal evidence from rank-and-file NIPSA members suggests that the major forces behind the No vote were fear and a paralysing lack of confidence. Importantly, this was the first time in NIPSA’s history that it had ever called for an all-out strike, and many members, who are by no means well off, were fearful of striking for a protracted period with no strike pay. Rumours were flying that the strike would last a month or more, and this was hugely damaging. While it is understandable that the leadership didn’t want to put a timeframe on the strike, we could have seen in the first week or so what the outcome would be. Either it would be solid and the government would come under serious pressure, or it would not be solid and would go down to a quick defeat.

There is another factor, which is that a huge proportion of the rank and file don’t trust the union to lead a major struggle. It has been noticeable that some of the most militant members from last year’s strike have been the most disillusioned and cynical this time. The failure of the previous strike has left a residue of mistrust that it will be difficult to overcome. Members are loyal to the union, but the union is not very good at inspiring confidence. It is significant that quite a lot of civil servants have expressed admiration for the postal workers’ wildcat action, and quoted it as an example of how to fight.


A sentiment you do hear now is that there will have to be a clearout of the dead wood at the top of the union. The results of the General Council elections – ballot papers have just gone out – will be an interesting pointer to the mood of members. Currently there is a balance between the “Time for Change” slate, associated with the Socialist Party, and an amorphous current styled “Reclaim the Union”. Although the differences between the slates are more rhetorical than practical, TfC are popularly seen as the “militants” and RtU as the “moderates”. On past form, members mostly vote for individuals who have a reputation as effective representatives, no matter what their faction, but the closeness of the race means that the relatively minor influence of the slates will probably be decisive. It is not impossible that the No vote in the strike ballot could be followed by a leftward swing in the union elections. It will also be worth watching the line of the small “Uncivil Servant” slate, linked to the Socialist Workers Party, who last year called for a vote for any candidates except those of Time for Change.

But a slightly more leftwing leadership will not resolve our problems. The major issue facing NIPSA militants is that we have a very high union density – membership in the Civil Service is 75-80% – but a very low proportion of union activists. This is not in the main a subjective problem, but relates to the overall low level of class struggle. What we really need is more participation at the branch level, which would then make it possible to realistically talk about union democracy and rank-and-file organisation. This will be a difficult task and not one that can be solved in the short term, but it is the task that militants should be thinking seriously about. More generally most workers are not aware of the sweeping offensive against all forms of public service proposed by the British and the initial steps of building a network of class struggle activists across all the public service unions not yet been undertaken.


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