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NI Civil Service dispute stutters to a close

Andrew Johnson

15th September 2004

NIPSA’s campaign of industrial action in protest at the 2003 pay freeze has finally come to an end after 43 weeks. In a branch consultation members voted to reject the Civil Service Executive Committee’s call for an all out strike. This ends the action and means the acceptance of the government’s last offer of 2% over 16 months.

Choreography of the deal

The government has played a slick hand in recent weeks. A “final” offer for 2004 which would have amounted to a 0.25% rise in pay scales caused widespread anger in the service. This was almost immediately followed by a final final offer of 2% on the scales plus various cash bonuses – a miserly offer, but looking relatively good in comparison. Importantly, while the 0.25% would be a 12-month deal, the 2% would cover 16 months and, because it involved changing the pay cycle, would require union consent. If NIPSA did not accept the 2%, that offer would automatically fall and the 0.25% would have been imposed.

After ten months of this dispute, a large number of civil servants were ready to grab what they could and bring the action to an end. In any case, the campaign of selective strike action had run its course. The union could either cut a deal or try to take the dispute forward in a different way. A pointer to the way things would go was provided by the government’s action towards the Driver & Vehicle Testing Agency (DVTA) workers, the one group on selective strike who had the most impact. When the government introduced emergency legislation to exempt motorists in the north from MOTs, the union leadership sent the DVTA strikers back to work. It was clear at this point that the union strategy – essentially a war of attrition – was going nowhere fast and the government was succeeding in toughing the dispute out.

What then happened in relation to the pay offers was that the EC recommended rejection of both offers and a move to an all out strike. The recently concluded branch consultation was to discuss this escalation. Many civil servants speculated as to whether the call for an all out strike was a face-saving exercise, ensuring a vote for a settlement while allowing the EC to claim that they had not backed down. In any case, there were legitimate questions to be asked about the EC proposal – why have an all out strike at the fag end of a dispute instead of at the start? What preparation had been made for the strike? Would there be meaningful solidarity from other unions? Most importantly, did the EC have a strategy to win the dispute? Answers were thin on the ground.

On 13th September the EC announced the results of the consultation, saying that 51.4% of members taking part in the consultation had voted against the all out strike and that therefore the 2% deal would be accepted; this was accompanied by a lot of belligerent rhetoric. The EC did not disclose how many members actually voted for the all out strike, as abstentions were also counted in the consultation. Anecdotal evidence puts the vote for an all out strike at around a third.

This represents a victory for the government. While the dispute has cost a lot financially and in terms of disruption, they have got away with a year in which the Civil Service, by far the largest employer in the North, has not paid its staff a cost of living increase. Bearing in mind that the Department for Work and Pensions – the lowest paid department in the Home Civil Service – has a starting salary £2000 higher than the NICS starting salary, this is a significant step towards regional pay. And, if direct rule ministers’ comments are to be taken at face value, the push for regional pay has only just begun.

There are three obvious conclusions to be drawn from this. The first is that the majority of civil servants are basically pragmatic and are not willing to take strike action that would lose them more money than it would win them – if it won anything at all. The second is that there is a substantial minority, largely concentrated in the Social Security Agency, which is extremely militant and could be the core of a revival in the union. Finally, if NIPSA militants want to build a fighting union, some hard questions are going to have to be asked about how we are going to achieve this.

Rebuilding the NIPSA left

Many of the developments in the strike can be explained by reference to the electoral arithmetic between the two main factions in the leadership. Reclaim the Union (the right wing) holds a narrow majority over Time for Change (a vaguely leftish formation inspired by the Socialist Party). Many union members will now be looking to TfC as the only serious tendency with the potential to offer a different strategy.

What is needed first of all is a period of reflection where militants in NIPSA can honestly discuss the history of the dispute and what lessons might be learned from it. So far what we have got from TfC is denial: “The dispute spluttered to a halt when the majority of the NIPSA Civil Service Executive decided not to continue that struggle.” (TfC Newsletter, 15/9/04). No it did not. The EC unanimously recommended an all out strike and the members voted against the proposal. Or we have this gem: “The Executive majority has consistently been out of step and has in reality proved unequal to the task the members expected of them.” So, the workers were straining at the leash but the right wing sold them out. But TfC members of the EC did not argue for doing anything differently, just for doing a bit more of what was already being done. To their credit, the TfC comrades acknowledge that a debate is needed and lessons must be learned. But their idea of a debate seems to be to argue over procedural issues.

No, the debate must be broader. Firstly we have to recognise that rank and file organisation in NIPSA, despite the boost gained from the strike, remains at a low level. And, while TfC’s electoral performance in the past few years gives the impression of a strong left wing, at office level the left is much weaker than the old NIPSA Broad Left. There is no effective rank and file organisation, and without a serious effort to build one, talk about a “fighting democratic union” is little more than hot air aimed at next year’s General Council elections.

Most importantly, there needs to be a clear political strategy at the core of any effective fightback in the public sector. The North has historically been cushioned from the extremes of the Thatcherite agenda, but that is no longer the case. There are two arguments for passivity one hears in the trade union movement. One is “wait for Gordon” – although Brown stands for nothing but Blair’s policies administered by Brown – and the other is “wait for Stormont”. This ignores the actual record of the devolved ministers, who were never slow to cite “Treasury limits”. If workers are to win anything, they will win it by their own efforts. The path forward is to rebuild a rank and file left in the public sector unions while forging a meaningful alliance between militants in these unions, based on a programme of defending the public sector and resisting privatisation and regional pay.


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