NIPSA is a small union in British terms but in Northern Ireland it is extremely important. Not only for its size with a current membership of 45,000 but also because it has the greatest spread of members. It is the only union that organises in every part of the public service and has members in every part of the North. From that point of view NIPSA holds considerable power in deciding the future of working class people and its conference decisions can play a part in holding back or taking forward working class struggle.
This years conference comes at a time when the working class faces intense attacks from both Westminster and the Assembly. It is coming after a period of struggle where all unions have begun to be tested in front of their membership. NIPSA activists will be able to go to the conference with a certain amount of pride that their union played a significant role in the fight against cuts over the last period and that activists on the ground delivered massive action on 30 November and on 10 May. But there will also be major questions that delegates will have to grapple with. Many issues will be debated at the conference but without doubt the key issue is the next stage in developing a strategy to take on and defeat the Tories and the Assembly.
Linking up with other fighting unions
The union is already committed to a strong fighting position and clearly must be prepared after the conference to develop and continue the fight. It has also taken a lead in starting to create an alliance of unions who are prepared to fight back. Efforts have been made to organise that alliance both through the official trade union umbrella body, NIC-ICTU, and independently through separate meetings of the unions who are currently prepared to fight. This successful work should be continued and further developed. The union must renew serious debate on one of the most pressing issues it is faced with if an effective strategy to fight the cuts is to be developed. That is the issue of using political action to defend jobs, pay and services.
Politicians must be challeged
Currently all the politicians in the Assembly are implementing massive attacks on pensions, jobs and services. In some cases they are enthusiastic supporters of the Tories right-wing austerity programme in others cases they are less enthusiastic about the speed of cuts but, nonetheless, they agree that cuts need to happen and are actively introducing devastating attacks on workers and their communities. For NIPSA this presents a real problem. NIPSA has the power to campaign against candidates who support cuts and have them voted out. NIPSA has the power to support candidates in elections who would oppose cuts and get them elected to the councils and the Assembly to oppose cuts which are devastating NIPSA members’ lives. Unfortunately up to this point NIPSA has not taken this step to defend its members and some have steadfastly refused to allow the union to take that step by opposing NIPSA members’ right to have a political fund - a right enjoyed by the members of the other major unions here. At this years conference the issue will be up for debate again and hopefully a fruitful debate will be held which will chart the way forward and allow NIPSA to take its place alongside other unions here in determining a political alternative.
NIPSA conference is also the opportunity for delegates to elect a new leadership into a raft of positions from the President through to Executive Committees. They will be hard fought elections but hopefully they will be democratic and conducted in the best traditions of the union movement on the issues of policy and not personal attack.
The Socialist Party has a number of members standing along with Broad Left members in the election. It is clear that an active left leadership and an active membership is what is required for the union to go forward and develop a strategy to defeat the cuts.