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INTO Conference

Trade Unionism – Goodbye to all that!

18th March 2006

John McAnulty

The INTO conference in Limavady on 3rd March was, unusually for such conferences, full of drama and surprise. In the biggest switch to the right in a generation, the union endorsed the savage cuts and political reaction contained in the British policy document 'The Review of Public Administration' (RPA). It invited representatives of the government to join the internal union discussion and justified everything in the name of partnership between unions and bosses.

Perhaps the least surprising element of the mix was Northern secretary Frank Bunting's defence of partnership. In an outspoken attack on myself he said: 'John McAnulty would die in a ditch against partnership - so be it - partnership is the way forward'.

This seems straightforward enough - after all, INTO is one of the leading unions supporting partnership with the government and bosses in the 26 counties. The surprise comes with reflection.  26 county partnership is a formal agreement that claims to contain concessions to the workers. There is no corresponding 6 county agreement. 'Partnership' in the North is in fact servitude, where the union bureaucracy doesn't bother to disguise the subordination of the worker's interests to those of the bosses.

Rather more dramatic was the announcement that union delegates would be helped to their decision by the bosses. The bureaucracy had decided to invite the civil service mandarin responsible for implementing the policy both to introduce the discussion and to respond to questions within the debate.  With little protest the delegates lost their democratic right to decide union policy in private and the meeting lost it's status as a union conference.

To be fair to the Mandarin, he left INTO members in no doubt about what they were signing up to. 

  • Cuts of £250 million. (We were assured that the money saved would remain in the Northern economy - given the strong drive towards privatisation, its certain it will end in private hands).
  • Job losses of 3000.
  • Reduction of numbers of schools and amalgamation of Catholic and Protestant schools while preserving their sectarian identity.  The British had just announced that four applications for integrated schools had been turned down – so much for promises that the new dispensation would end sectarian division!
  • A political component: Seven new supercouncils that would guarantee automatic Orange and Green majorities in six of the seven councils and thus perpetuate sectarian division in the North.
  • Restructuring of Quangos. The outcome would be to bring even larger areas of civil society under direct government control while yet again copper-fastening sectarian division. All one has to do is think of the appointment of Orangemen to the Parades commission or of the appointment of a leader of the PUP, voice of the UVF, to the policing board.

So why were the INTO leadership peddling this reactionary programme? There seemed to be 3 reasons. In order of reverse importance they were: 

  • The old chestnut that money saved would go to 'frontline services'. The fact that this has never happened doesn't stop the union leadership buying it.
  • The conviction among Reformists that, if they were in charge, they could run capitalism more efficiently. To this extent there is a material base to 'partnership' given that support for the government's plans means places on the new quangos.
  • Support for the ghost of the Good Friday agreement.  Nationalists still seem largely unaware that the GFA is defunct.  The agreement did include a clause supporting a new financial austerity and the Provos and SDLP are still keen to prove their own reliability and continued support for the deal.
  • The overwhelming drive however was to escape the clutches of the CCMS – the Catholic Council for maintained schools. This had proved to be both a source of corruption – spending large sums earmarked for education – and active in attacking the union and its members. The bureaucracy seem to forget that they were initially enthusiastic supporters of CCMS on the grounds that they would help them escape the clutches of the parish priests.  The new dispensation of a unitary employing authority will of course include the CCMS and will also allow a more direct control by the British – whose policy it was the CCMS were being so vicious in enforcing.

As is normal in these situations, it's what did not happen that was most significant. What did happen is that there was almost no opposition, outside of the writer of this article, to this rightwing agenda.  The lack of opposition can be explained by the lack of political consciousness, activity and debate within the teachers unions. School representatives tend to look on the conference as a holiday and endorse the views of the leadership almost automatically.  Debate is generated by political currents in the union and it was these who were silent. 

Provo supporters were silent because their leadership welcome the promise of control and patronage in councils west of the Bann and because the leadership have kept only a sham opposition to issues like water charges, retaining support for their earlier commitments to the British during the Good Friday negotiations.  More interesting was the silence of the Socialist party members in the INTO leadership.   At the last Northern conference they were holding fringe meetings urging unity against education cuts.  Now they are silent when the leadership they are part of endorses the cuts. Following the Irish Ferries defeat the Socialist party said clearly that the struggle was defeated and that the bureaucracy were responsible. They hinted at a break from the union leadership.  Their silence in the face of this sharp right turn means that their practice remains one of unity with the union bureaucracy.

A grim time lies ahead – what Peter Hain calls ‘year zero’ for public service. Budget cuts, job cuts, wage cuts, pension cuts. When teachers awake to this reality they will find that those they expected would defend them have lined up on the other side of the barricade.  That’s why it is so important to build a network of public service workers today.


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