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Lessons of the Northern Ireland Civil Service Strike

By a NIPSA member

8th March 2005

(The following document was handed out at the NIPSA Special Delegate Conference on 11 March in Belfast)

The 40 week-long civil service strike in 2004 was undoubtedly the most significant industrial dispute in Northern Ireland for many years.  The public sector is central to the local economy and the civil service is the core of the sector.  The terms and conditions of its workers, for good and bad, are benchmarks not only for other public sector workers but also for many in the private sector.  The dispute therefore had significance for workers far beyond those immediately affected.

This wider significance also explains the motivation of the government and its determination to tough it out.  In all these senses the dispute was eminently political.  This was demonstrated beyond all doubt in October when the Secretary of State intervened directly into the dispute to withdraw the existing pay offer and threaten a £10 million fine on the block grant that funds public expenditure.  From that date no one could be under the illusion that they were part of a run-of-the-mill industrial dispute.

The decision by the Executive Committee (EC) of the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA) to carry out a review of the strike and to hold a meeting to debate its lessons is most welcome.  This happens too little in the union movement and the opportunity must be seized on to involve as many members as possible in the process.  It must become the focus for everyone in the union to enable it to better prepare for resistance to future attacks on pay, terms and conditions and employment levels.

To focus the review the EC has produced a consultation paper that records the history of the strike from the original 7.5% pay claim to eventual defeat.  It lists the action that was taken, whether this was successful and what recommendations for the future should be taken on board.

Civil Service members of NIPSA and members generally have to begin by asking themselves only one question after reading the paper.  Does the EC’s recommendations, if adopted, give them confidence that the next dispute can be won?

We would be very surprised if the majority could honestly answer yes.

So what lessons have been missed?  What recommendations have not been made and what changes need to be put in place?

A Political Strike

The first thing to record is that the strike was not a wholly negative experience.  Much worse would have been to lie back and accept the imposition of no increase to pay rates.  This would only have invited further and swifter attacks.  An open and frontal attack on the conditions of an important workforce without resistance would only have encouraged the government to further measures.  This means it was absolutely correct to have taken action.  The union may be financially weaker but the real strength of a union lies in the activity of its membership and the dispute brought many members, often for the first time, into action.  New activists to the union have been created and for many the union was seen to fight for their interests

It must be acknowledged however that much of this will be lost if the wrong lessons are learnt or the right ones are not addressed.  Members will be cautious about further action and will need convinced of future strategy.  This is the importance of the debate taking place.

Refusal of the employers to negotiate, at the behest of the government, meant that the traditional route for the union to progress the dispute was closed.  The situation became an open trial of strength, not between the employers and union but between the union and the government.  As we have said, the dispute quickly became a political one.  The underlying weakness of the EC Consultation Paper is that this is not acknowledged.  This has two consequences.  It fails to register the determination of the opposition and by doing so fails to recognise the tasks set before the union.  From these tasks flowed the scope of action that had to be fought for.

Union leaders always run a million miles from accepting that sometimes industrial action is political, but this doesn’t change reality, it just ties one hand behind the backs of the workers.  They fear that openly declaring their action is political will leave the union open to legal challenge and political attack.  On the former we will see how the only effective action must necessarily go beyond Thatcher’s anti-union laws.  To accept these laws is to accept being hamstrung – that’s why they were introduced!  On the latter – acknowledgement of the political character of the government’s policy would have allowed an open and honest argument to the members and – importantly – to other workers about what was going on.  It would have allowed the union to campaign among these workers on the basis that the government’s attack will undermine and threaten their own situation, if not immediately then not far down the road. 

The Consultation Paper

The underlying problem facing members was apparent right at the start.  The membership voted 62% to 38% for strike action.  This is a convincing majority.  The problem is that only about 60% of the affected membership voted.  This again is good for a union ballot but this unfortunately is a poor yardstick.  It meant that only around 36% of the membership had signed up for strike action.  It reflected the fact that union activism was and is very unevenly spread, with many branches lacking real activity while others were and are more strongly organised.  It reflects the fact that most, if not all, get tiny attendances at often not very frequent meetings.  This is not a problem peculiar to NIPSA, and the union is probably in a better situation than most, but it is a real problem when one faces a strong and determined opposition.

This does not mean the majority for action should have been ignored.  It does mean it should have informed the union’s strategy.  It definitely should be a matter for sustained attention now.  How do we increase involvement in the union?  The strike itself, by giving members a real reason and opportunity to get involved has helped but now we need to see what else can be done.

Right away we should reject arguments that ordinary members don’t like industrial action.  If we believed that we should all go home.  Given a reason to fight, organisation to achieve it and a strategy that inspires some confidence the majority of members can be won to real activity.  As we know more members have become involved in union activity because of the dispute.  Only by increasing these numbers and winning the solidarity of others could the dispute, and future disputes, be won.  It is by these criteria that we should judge the recommendations in the EC’s Paper.


The Paper goes through all the various tactics employed and states whether these were successful or not.  This is useful but cannot be the whole story.  The dispute had an overall dynamic that isn’t captured by this approach.  In general we can say that the longer a dispute lasts the more difficult it can become to sustain support and build action.  Without a clear strategy of ascending action the dispute lacked a clear direction.

A course of selective action is especially problematic where not all the membership is equally involved, as was clearly the case from the start when around 40% of the membership didn’t even vote.

If the dispute did have an overall strategy it was the use of strike action by key groups of workers.  This however failed to rally and unite the whole membership in joint activity and precisely played to our weakness – the uneven involvement and support of the membership.  Resentment was easily built up between those taking action and those not and it became easier for some to claim that sacrifices were not being made equally.  A strategy and tactics that involved and united the whole membership was what was required.  Selective action can prepare for this but is not a substitute for it.

The EC’s report itself admits that the selective action was not built towards any wider action but it does not then explain whether, how or of what nature this wider action should have taken.  It makes no recommendation for such action and in doing so reveals its lack of confidence in all the other measures it proposes, which only have real effect if geared to such an objective.  Like the leadership of the strike it lacks conviction.

All this comes together in the section of the report that covers the implementation of the industrial action’s strategy.  It notes problems of winning support from members, of supporting the efforts of those active in the strike and confusion in organisation but makes no recommendations for fundamental change.  In this section of the report as in others the failure to communicate effectively with members is noted and lamented but the purely technical answers, such as texting to mobile phones, are all beside the point.

The failure to organise public rallies earlier and outside Belfast; to properly organise transport to them; to have effective work to rule guidelines understood and tailored to ground level; difficulties in collecting levies from members; of winning new support among members and winning them to more extensive action are all mentioned but all as if they were unrelated.  In fact they are all reflective of one thing – the lack of real rank and file control of the industrial action.  Local control could have addressed all these problems.  No amount of recommendations for improving top-down communication addresses or solves them.  This is a fundamental lesson missing from the report.

Rank and file control is absolutely necessary not only to sorting out organisational problems but also to winning more active support and to winning those passive, neutral or indifferent to positive action.


If the weakness of union participation and the associated problem of rank and file control are the first two lessons of the strike the third is the lack of solidarity action.  It is on this that the report goes from weak to woeful.

The EC Report makes four recommendations about lobbying politicians who have proved time and time again that they are either not interested in organising support for trade unionists or are actually opposed to trade union action.  It makes three recommendations around vague calls for ‘contacting’ other union bodies such as trade councils.  Yet we are supposed to have a union co-ordinating body that is charged with helping fellow trade unionists in need – the Northern Committee of ICTU.  In fact, of course, the only role of this organisation was to try to stop the industrial action not build support for it.

The EC report says nothing about how and what sort of action should have been called for.  Incredibly it does not even mention the need to gain the support of other public sector workers in our own union! 
Such glaring omissions are a direct result of failing to appreciate or declare the political nature of the dispute – the fact that it was a battle against government attacks on all public sector workers.

We do not underestimate the problems and difficulties in gaining support for action outside those directly and immediately involved.  In Northern Ireland the working class is divided by sectarianism and has no political party proclaiming defence of its interests exclusively.  But such obstacles cannot be overcome by shirking them or by failing to rise to the challenge.

Support for the action should have been garnered first from other NIPSA members by a union-wide levy and a campaign of education to win their active support once, if not before, the action began.  Such a campaign would not have been limited to pickets or rallies but would have been a real ‘political’ campaign on the streets, workplaces and estates.  The resources of the union should have been directed to newsletters not just aimed at civil service members but all NIPSA members, all trade unionists and all working class people.  Levies should have been called for from other unions and appeals made directly to other workers in their workplaces where union leaderships were opposed or wanted only to pay lip service.

Only on the firm basis of such a mass popular campaign could solidarity action have been called for from other NIPSA members, other union members in the public sector and workers generally.  The objective of all this should have been a public sector wide alliance for defending pay, conditions jobs and services.

These are not just historical questions but are tasks still posed today.

Lessons and Recommendations

Summing up the lessons:

  • Membership involvement in the union is weak and uneven.  The strike itself went some way to overcoming this but it was too little and too late.  Only by giving members real ownership of the union can apathy and indifference be overcome.  One step to achieving this is to allow branches to retain a proportion of union subscriptions to allow them to use them in the way they think best to strengthen the union locally.  Means of accountability can easily be devised.
  • The extension of union publications should not wait on strike action but should be expanded now.  An elected editorial committee should run publications and should commission and encourage articles from local members and branches.  Debate should not be feared but should be encouraged.
  • There was no overall strategy to win the strike and selective action further fragmented an already fragmented workforce and membership.  First there was no real preparation for the strike before it began.  All the methods used in the strike should have been geared to extending action up to and including all out action.  A strategy of ascending action based on mobilising members not only inside the civil service but other members of the union should have been adopted.  A political campaign attempting to win support among other public sector workers and workers in the communities should have been adopted.  No reliance can be placed on bureaucratic bodies like NICTU.
  • All the problems noted in the EC report are a direct result of lack of local control of the strike.  All future strikes should be under the direct control of branch representatives who make the sacrifices and know the mood of the members.  A stranding conference with full power over the strike should be convened once industrial action is seriously contemplated.  Reps from members outside those in dispute should also be in attendance and a requisite number should be able to call an extraordinary conference of the union to support actions which affect the union as a whole.  Branch reps should be subject to election and reselection at any time by meetings of the branches.  This is how rank and file initiative can be established and all the problems detailed in the EC report overcome.
  • No serious attempt was made to win solidarity from other workers or the working class generally.  Only mass involvement of the membership in a campaign that went to other workplaces and into the communities could have posed solidarity as a real possibility.  Reliance on lobbying the political great and the good was a waste of time.

The strike revealed the weakness of a union too dependant on full time officials and without strong enough involvement of the members.  Only root and branch reform of the way the union functions can allow it to seriously attempt to mobilise its members against future government attacks.  Refusal to seek fundamental change in the union’s structure and policy will fail our members just as the strike failed.

The positives of the strike point the way forward.  We need an understanding of the political nature of the dispute, rank and file initiative, a real strategy of ascending action and a strategy that involves all our members and other workers outside the union.


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