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Trade Unionists meet to discuss fighting the cuts - how can we win?
By a NIPSA member
15 January 2011
On 14 January the largest trade union in the north of Ireland called a conference of its branch representatives to discuss how the union should fight cuts in public services that have been announced by the NI Executive in its draft budget. The conference came at an opportune time as just the day before it was revealed that cuts would result in 4,000 redundancies within the health service alone. NIPSA is one of the most important unions with all its members inside the public sector now facing the prospect of job losses, increased work pressure and cuts in living standards as inflation reaches 5 per cent while their pay is frozen for two years.
The conference drew over two hundred and fifty branch activists. It was probably as representative a gathering of union reps as any and its debate a good indicator of where the working class and militants are at. It had to get to grips with the difficult problem of how to build an effective resistance to the cuts in order to defend jobs, conditions and services. Unlike a conference there was free debate without restrictions or limitations because of the need to address specific motions. As we will see the nature of the conference was still problematic because of this.
NIPSA is a relatively democratic union with a history of engaging in struggles and a long standing left inside it. It is not however so different that its experience is unlike that of other unions and its size, around 46,000 members, means it includes a fair representation of the working class across the North. Its public sector membership reflects the role played in the economy and society of the state and the employment it provides.
The problem with the conference was that it was not a decision making one and was simply for education and discussion. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. In fact to have attempted to make it a decision making gathering would not just have run foul of the union rule book, which socialists don’t regard as sacrosanct, but would have failed to engage the membership who had not been told beforehand that this meeting would make decisions.
This did not prevent speakers from all shades of opinion within the union lamenting that decisions had to be made so that delegates did not leave as they had left a similar conference last year - no further forward and nothing really agreed. This author was not at the earlier conference so this assessment might be wrong but it appeared that in all essential s the debate had not moved forward and on this score the conference had not succeeded.
Before we look at what the debate was it should be said that this assessment does not make the conference a failure. The fact that over two hundred and fifty union activists had a chance to hear each other’s views and debate the causes and effects of the crisis and what they could do about it was a very good thing. The large attendance indicated a reasonable group of activists prepared to engage in a fight to defend jobs and services.
The debate had a number of themes but let’s approach it from the those advanced by the speakers from the broad left, which is dominated by members of the Socialist Party. They advanced a number of arguments.
Firstly, that all cuts should be opposed not just some. Secondly, that we need a militant campaign to do this which should be based on organising for a one day public sector strike against the cuts. The union should also sponsor or set up a political party to contest the elections on a platform of opposing the cuts. The current politicians are not being forced to implement cuts but are right wing sectarian parties enthusiastically implementing the cuts demanded by the Tory/Lib Dem coalition in London. Even one socialist anti-cuts MLA in the Assembly would make a major difference.
This perspective appeared to be based on a sober assessment of the situation facing the working class. In particular two speakers said that the cuts will take time to be felt and that most have not yet been implemented. Many workers will take the view that a couple of years of sacrifice however unpalatable will just have to be endured to get over the crisis. The task of the union was to bring home to workers the effect of the cuts that have already been implemented and to inform them that the strategy of the coalition government will not work and that any sacrifices they make will be in vain. It will not bring us back to previously relatively prosperous conditions. In effect the aim of the Tories was an ideological one aimed at no less than destruction of the welfare state.
It would be possible to quibble with certain statements made and formulations employed but this sort of criticism of verbal interventions would be a bad mistake. The basic argument advanced by the Socialist Party (SP) members was correct as were the points made about where workers are at and what approach many were taking to the cuts. There was little useless rhetoric about how the workers are itching to fight back and win that one hears at left meetings and what there was did not come from SP members.
This does not mean that this writer has no problems with what they said. Two SP speakers said that the objective of the strike was to force the parties in the Executive to resist the demands of the Westminster Government. This rather contradicted other remarks made by these speakers about the character of these parties and this on its own should give SP supporters pause to reject this perspective.
The second problem was their approach to the union setting up a political resistance. We will address this some more in a moment but there is no doubt that they have not really learned from their experience of having one of their members – Joe Higgins – elected to the Dail in Dublin. On two occasions this strategy has been found wanting and there really can be no answer to claims that his election did very little to politicise or organise the working class movement in the South. A northern Joe Higgins would not make a ‘huge’ difference just as Joe Higgins in the Dail did not make a huge difference.
It is worth restating what is correct about the Socialist Party’s argument. The cuts will not be fought by lobbying Assembly politicians except to expose their actions and this isn’t lobbying but demonstrating to expose their role in enforcing the cuts. Only militant industrial action will work and a one day public sector strike is a focus to build up activity, awareness, organisation and support for a successful campaign. Socialists are entirely in favour of getting workers in the unions to set up a political voice as political action is ultimately the only way to defend their interests. The problem is that the criticisms from other delegates of these proposals reveal weaknesses in the understanding of the SP in the way forward.
The General Secretary of NIPSA Brian Campfield criticised the idea that one lone voice in the Assembly would make much difference. This is substantially correct. He even said that a majority of socialists in the Assembly would have to work within the budget given to them by London as the Northern Ireland state was not a sovereign one with real powers to tax and spend etc. What would you do with the budget he asked the left? How would you divide it up? What would you do with a reduced block grant?
Of course if the SP view really is that the existing parties could be forced to oppose Westminster these arguments might seem to be avoided. But of course they cannot.
This is where we should reflect on one other point that Brian Campfield made – that one should not allow one’s political views to impinge on one’s ability to think.
The answer to these objections is that even one socialist in Stormont would be a step forward even if she or he could not play the role which the SP seems to believe they could. A socialist majority at Stormont would refuse to set a cuts budget and use its position to call for a general strike to oppose the cuts. This would either force Westminster to accept these demands or close Stormont down. If it did the latter it would immediately rob direct rule of any legitimacy.
The prior problem of course is that we are nowhere near a socialist majority. As one delegate truthfully pointed out, most union candidates would lose their deposit.
But this too is obviously not the real point. The point is that with a political vehicle we could begin to fight for socialist politics. The real weakness of the SP’s position is that their critics at the conference appear to have a real inkling of what a political alternative means. As they pointed out repeatedly: the majority of workers, and presumably a majority of NIPSA members, vote for these parties – the DUP and Sinn Fein etc. Instinctively they understand something the SP doesn’t – socialism is not just about opposing cuts. This is an economic demand that all members of NIPSA can support without giving up their support for the political demands which the Assembly parties they support uphold.
What this means is that the task, the correct task, of getting union members to set up a political voice means a fight to change the members political ideas not to pretend that their trade union ideas are enough as a basis for a political alternative. This means that setting up a trade union political voice must not so much be the answer to fighting the cuts, but just as much a consequence of a political radicalisation that may begin with a campaign against the cuts but will have to go way, way beyond this. It would mean setting up a political vehicle that would not ignore the existing parties which workers and NIPSA members vote for but of necessity consciously fighting them.
We cannot simply pass a resolution at a NIPSA conference calling on workers to set up such a vehicle without a political fight that has not even been commenced. To repeat, opposition to cuts is not anywhere near a political alternative and neither is adding nationalisation to the list of policies a party may espouse. The NIPSA membership work for state owned bodies and if it was put to them that the bureaucracies they work in, the Northern Ireland Civil Service, the Housing Executive, HMRC, MoD or health service etc. are models of socialist change they would either laugh at such folly or be victims of it.
So the immediate question remains – what are the next steps in the task of fighting the cuts?
As we have said, elements of the proposals of the broad left speakers were correct. At least this was a perspective although not a strategy. A one day public sector strike is something to build for but it is not so much the day that would be important. The state might even welcome the savings to be made from not having to pay the salaries of the strikers and a one day strike will seriously inflict losses on no one. What, members will ask, do we do when we go back to work the next day?
So exaggerating the effect of a one day strike will convince very few while convincing them to take one day strike action in the first place will not be an easy task, as the conference demonstrated.
On the other hand, while there were declarations that industrial action was necessary, there was no coherent alternative from the majority leadership of the union. They were able to make telling criticisms of the left but did not present an overall strategy themselves.
This is not due to bad faith. It is a result of three things. Lack of political understanding, the undoubted difficulties working people face and the weakness of working class consciousness reflected in majority support for reactionary and sectarian parties. Of these it is the last that is most difficult and not amenable to an easy or quick solution.
In proposing a campaign towards a one day public sector strike it is the campaign element of the proposal that is most important because this is what will make it a success or otherwise and it is this that will be left the day after the strike is over.
The principles that must underlie the building of an anti-cuts movement are clear enough. NIPSA by itself will not win. It needs both an alliance with other trade unionists and with workers in the community. The activists must therefore campaign not only in their own branches but in the wider trade union movement. They must also mobilise in the communities.
All this is instinctively understood which is why the afternoon session of the conference was devoted to work outside the union in trades councils and linking with the community. Unfortunately instinct is not enough and this was by far the weakest aspect of the conference.
When we speak of uniting with the communities this does not mainly or primarily mean linking up with existing community groups although there should be many occasions where this is both necessary and desirable. Community groups are just as bureaucratised as many trade unions and are often puppets or clients of sectarian parties or loyalist paramilitaries. This should be no surprise – it is in the communities that workers are most divided. They don’t even live beside each other even when they often work together. Winning community support to a campaign against the cuts is thus first and foremost a task for NIPSA itself, not something it can hive off to others or depend on alliances with existing community organisations.
Motivating NIPSA members, giving them the propaganda aimed at workers in the communities, setting up a campaign that democratically involves communities and putting together a strategy that links industrial action to defence of public services used by working people is no easy task. It is however much easier if you set out to achieve it.
It is through such a campaign outside the workplace that the union will be forced to confront and oppose existing political parties and there should be no illusion that this might be avoided. It is doubtful that the union leadership are up to this task so it is one the left inside the union should fight for.
It is on this basis that these parties can really start to be challenged. Those of us who have gone door to door organising meetings against water privatisation will know that these parties will immediately smell a challenge and react but this is precisely why such a strategy is required. This will be the start of our fight against these parties.
As for fighting in the broader trade union movement this unfortunately is just as difficult and the first step is not to trust ICTU one little bit. It means total and complete rejection of any idea of importing into the North the utter failure of a ‘Better, Fairer way’ under which workers in the South have been betrayed into having their living standards plundered to pay for the banks. Trades councils are one way to organise but these are as yet few in number and very, very weak. They do however represent one model of alternative organisation and one point of departure.
The unity of these councils is one option but the need for organisation of rank and file activists across the unions is also necessary - to debate tactics and strategy and build a real militant movement. This was the task that the Jerry Hicks campaign in UNITE hoped could be advanced and, if only for a limited time, made some little progress towards.
The union leadership appears to believe that it is only in isolated struggles that successful resistance will be possible. This however will not be enough. We have already seen the Executive draw back from water charges only to inflict bigger cuts elsewhere. If they get away with these cuts the case for water charges will only be strengthened and sooner or later they will be imposed.
In the not so long term this approach cannot work and cannot be the basis of the union’s strategy.
It will however undoubtedly be true that isolated resistance among groups of workers, some from local communities, will flare up as the cuts begin to bite. The task of union activists and the left will be to mobilise around these struggles not only to win them but to use them as the lever to create the widest and most political resistance possible to the Executive’s whole cuts agenda.
If you are a NIPSA member, a member of another union or have ideas about a strategy to oppose the cuts please contribute to the debate on this web site.
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