In a highly significant development the Broad Left grouping has won 20 out of 25 seats in recent elections to the General Council of the Northern Ireland Public Sector Alliance (NIPSA), Northern Ireland’s largest union. Nine of the Broad Left’s seats were won by Socialist Party members.
Over the last year the right wing has held a decisive majority on the General Council. The right won last year’s election in the period after the huge one day public sector strike against austerity on 30 November 2011. The strike was seen as acheiving little by many union members as the cuts and attacks of the Westminster government and the Assembly continued unabated. Ironically it was the failure of the right wing leaderships of most unions to follow up on the strike by taking further co-ordinated action that ensured that this was the case. Despite winning a large majority in 2012 the outgoing General Council majority ensured that NIPSA largely disappeared as an effective fighting force against the cuts.
The membership has now voted for a clearly argued strategy for a fight back. NIPSA Broad Left stood for election arguing for “sustained industrial action”, if necessary, and for NIPSA to co-ordinate its campaigns with other unions and community anti-cuts campaigns.
NIPSA members have a proud record of taking action against sectarian threats and attacks in the past. The recent period has seen an increase in sectarian tension and looks increasingly likely that the summer will see a further increase in conflict on the streets. Broad Left members have already raised the issue of action, including strike action, to counter sectarianism. The incoming General Council will seek to defend union members, and the working class as a whole, against threats and attacks.
The Broad Left recognises that ultimately the union must move in a political direction and in its manifesto called for the “use all options to defend NIPSA members, including supporting the election of genuine trade union anti-sectarian, anti-cuts political representatives”.
The General Council is the key decision-making body of the union. The left majority will take its seats after the annual conference in early June. Broad Left members also currently hold all three elected lay member positions in the union (President, Vice-President and Treasurer) and will be seeking re-election at conference.
A majority on the General Council puts the Broad Left in a strong position to point the union in the direction of a more militant defence of members’ wages, terms and conditions in the coming year. It is the case however that the full-time apparatus of the union is still largely in the hands of those who are opposed to any serious fight back, and who find a myriad of ways to obstruct the democracy of the union. A key task for the in-coming General Council is to ensure that the members’ voice is heard and listened to.