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  What is at stake in the NI Civil Service pay dispute

Andrew Johnson

30th January 2004

Background to the dispute

The Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) is the North’s largest employer by far, employing some 27,000 people. The Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA) is the North’s largest trade union, and has over 20,000 members in the Civil Service. This dispute is therefore on a scale not seen in the North since the 1980s.

The dispute is important outside the NICS for two reasons. Firstly, the majority of the workforce in the North is in the public or semi-public sector. The NICS can be a benchmark for a very large section of the working class. Secondly, the UK Civil Service is engaged on a pay dispute of its own. As the NICS pay round is about two months ahead of the UK Service, it could set a precedent. This is particularly the case when it comes to regional pay, currently being touted by Gordon Brown as the solution to the problem of London weighting.

The NIPSA claim

Civil servants in the North have longstanding grievances over pay. Despite a public perception that they are feather-bedded, many NICS members have to take second jobs to make ends meet and quite a few at the lowest end qualify for state benefits. The irony of government workers receiving government benefits seems to be lost on ministers.

In the 2003 pay round NIPSA had submitted a very detailed offer. The main points were as follows:

• A minimum hourly rate of £9.44 per hour. This is based on the Council of Europe low pay threshold, but is considerably above what many staff receive.

• An increase of 7.5% on pay rates. As inflation was running at 3% and staff were taking a 1% pay cut due to the rise in National Insurance, this equated to 3.5% in real terms.

• Substantial progress on outstanding equal pay claims, notably aligning the scales for administrative grades (which include many female workers) with the overwhelmingly male technical grades.

• Raising the pay increase due on promotion from 7.5% to 10%.

• Shortening the pay scales.

• Abolishing performance bonuses.

This offer was submitted in March 2003. No offer from management was received until September. In the meantime, the Senior Civil Service had received their pay settlement – including rises of up to 9% and substantial bonuses – as far back as June.

Complicating factors

It is the longstanding position of NIPSA that the annual increment is not a cost of living increase – it is a progression towards what in the NICS is recognised as the normal rate for the job, and payment of increments (which should be automatic on completion of the annual performance report) is not a substitute for revalorisation of the pay scales. Management had in fact accepted this position in the 2002 pay negotiations and agreed automatic payment of increments for 2003. They then reneged on this agreement and held back increments which should have been paid from April, purely so the incremental increase – which was due to be paid anyway – could be included in the headline figure for the pay settlement, thus befuddling the media and hoping to weaken NIPSA’s position with its members.

The other complicating factor was what the government calls “reform” and union members call strings. As was seen in the firefighters’ strike, the Treasury is demanding that any pay increases above inflation should be cost neutral. That may mean job cuts or a hiring freeze, or it may mean changes to working conditions. There were various changes management wanted to introduce in conditions. One was extension of working hours so that workers could be obliged to work evenings or weekends without being paid overtime rates. Other proposed changes involved the increased use of aptitude tests for promotion boards and an increase in the number of direct entrants at higher grades. The problem here is not just the content of the proposed changes. It is that in the Civil Service pay and conditions are negotiated separately. There is no precedent for a pay settlement being made conditional on changes in conditions.

When management finally got around to making a pay offer in September, both of these factors came into play. While management claimed to be making a 5.3% offer, this was a tendentious figure based on calculating the total cost to the service pay bill. In fact the bulk of this money consisted of the automatic increment and the increase in rates of pay was a mere 1.5%, or a real terms depreciation of 2.5%. Staff were left completely reliant on the automatic increment – which had still not been paid – to keep their heads above water. Worse, even this offer was made conditional on NIPSA acceptance of a “modernisation” agenda which would have had a serious negative impact on members’ working conditions. Management refused to negotiate on the “reform” package. Not surprisingly, the union rejected the offer. It also rejected a “final offer” which management claimed to be worth 5.57%, but was in fact 2% plus strings. Management claimed that this was the maximum it could afford, which was clearly a bogus argument as many other public sector workers had already received increases of around 3%. In branch consultation meetings 92% of participating members had voted in favour of rejection.

0% plus strings

In October management unilaterally withdrew the 2% offer and refused to negotiate further. NIPSA then called a ballot on industrial action. Management returned with another final offer. This was claimed to be worth 3.67%, but was in fact a zero increase in pay rates. When annual increments – which, remember, should have been paid automatically – were stripped away, there was no revalorisation of the pay scales at all. The offer consisted solely of the automatic increments plus a few small non-consolidated bonuses. When NIPSA officials met Finance Minister Ian Pearson, the minister refused to reconsider his position. He claimed that this offer was the maximum affordable, which was a direct lie as a higher offer was on the table only a month earlier. Pearson also threatened the union with regional pay, breaking the principle of parity with the UK Civil Service and using the local private sector as a benchmark instead. As private sector pay in Northern Ireland is 24% below the UK average, the implications are obvious.

The strike and union strategy

In the ballot NIPSA members voted by 62% for strike action and by 82% for industrial action short of strikes. The executive then called a one-day strike for 11th December – which was solidly supported, despite government disinformation – followed by a work to rule. As of January selective strike action has been taking place in various strategic workplaces.

There is little to be said about management strategy. It consists quite simply of misleading the public while trying to face the union down. In this Pearson is certainly acting with the full support of Downing Street and the Treasury.

The union has several things going for it. NIPSA membership in the NICS is over 75% and climbing as the union recruits from this struggle. As there is no other union involved, management have nobody else to negotiate with, as negotiate they will eventually need to. And solidarity among union members remains strong at this stage.

The main danger would be that, as the dispute drags on, the union leadership would be tempted to settle for a bad deal and weary workers might just vote to accept it. What is most obviously needed is stronger rank and file organisation and rank and file control of the officials. A serious rank and file organisation does not at this stage exist – the Time For Change group is really an electoral slate – and it obviously can’t be conjured out of thin air. But branch activism around the pay dispute could provide a catalyst for the beginnings of such an organisation.

This places a heavy responsibility on militants in NIPSA. It particularly places a responsibility on the Socialist Party, who have won a number of leadership positions in the union. SP comrades have put forward sensible proposals for rank and file organisation. If they want to take this forward from the propaganda level, it will require a rejuvenated NIPSA left which is as open, democratic and militant as the union we want to build.



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