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Workplace News: NIPSA

Time for a fighting Left in NIPSA
By Padraig Mulholland, NIPSA General Council (personal capacity)

As the level of struggle to protect the jobs and pay of workers against aggressive employers and big business orientated NI Assembly parties grows, workers are increasingly turning to trade unions to give a lead. In many cases when workers do turn to their unions, they find that the existing structures and leadership are tired and conservative, more used to working in ‘partnership’ with employers and agreeing to surrender on key issues rather than take up the fight. Workers are finding that their unions are not fit for purpose.   

Under the impact of events unions will have to change. New leaders will have to come forward who are prepared to fight. There is no doubt that a new generation of activists will develop in the union movement to fill that role in the next period. This new layer of fighters will play a crucial role in defining how the trade union movement develops; they can quickly breathe life into old structures and make necessary change in the tactics and strategy of the unions.    

In Northern Irelands largest trade union NIPSA, this process has been made easier by the work of the Time For Change group in the union. Time For Change is a very broad group of activists. They have been campaigning to break the total control of the union by an old conservative right wing group. This campaign has been effective but the Time For Change group has also had its limitations and in many ways has reached a point where it must change as well. The weakness of the Time For Change group has been that although it has fought highly effective election campaigns, when it comes to struggles by NIPSA members to defend and improve their terms and conditions, Time For Change activists have played a critical role as individuals but not as part of an organised left wing providing an effective alternative leadership across the union.

The next step in NIPSA is to build on the work done by Time For Change by the development of an effective organised, membership-based broad Left that not only fights in union elections but also lead struggles. A broad Left organisation must have a clear programme that it fights for, such as fighting for union democracy, for NIPSA to be genuinely independent from the Northern Ireland Assembly establishment parties, and for the election of full-time officials who should receive the same wages as the members. Time For Change activists can play a part in taking the next step in developing a strong broad Left wing organisation in NIPSA which would also help build solidarity across the union. 

If such a broad Left organisation is established now, new activists will see it as an effective vehicle to take on not only employers but also the old conservative layer in the unions who will stand in the road of effective resistance to the employers offensive.

Traffic attendants win reinstatement victory

14 August 2009

After sixteen weeks struggle and numerous ups and downs, Belfast’s sacked traffic attendants have finally reached an end to what has been a hugely important dispute for both the workers involved and the wider trade union movement. 

The dispute started at the beginning of April when the traffic attendants were sacked for walking out of work on a half day protest against atrocious working conditions.  Their employer, NSL (formerly NCP), initially responded by offering to enter talks about the issues the workers had raised but instead quickly moved to sack the 26 workers accusing them of taking illegal industrial action. This was the first time that this law had been used against any group of workers in Northern Ireland. NSL received a shock when the workers, refusing to lie down and go away, organised and fought back by putting pressure on Northern Ireland Assembly politicians, holding daily protests that became a Belfast landmark (and the location for regular traffic jams outside NSL HQ on Calendar street) and preparing for strike action by their colleagues who remained in work. From the beginning of the campaign the workers vowed that they would only end their campaign when all 26 had been offered reinstatement to their jobs.

The turning point of the campaign was reached at the end of July when the workers, both sacked and those still inside the workplace, met and took the brave decision to begin a ballot for strike action across Belfast. Within days serious talks took place between the workers trade union NIPSA and the employers and a settlement to the dispute was hammered out. Although the details of the agreement reached are confidential what is clear is that the workers have won a huge victory.

Having fought and won this battle the workers have now to set themselves new targets. A strong democratic union for traffic attendants needs to be built across Northern Ireland. The culture of dictatorial management control which included hiring and firing of workers at will and the bullying of staff has to be brought to a halt. In addition they along with the wider trade union movement must fight to bring this service back under public ownership and democratic control. Only then will it be possible to make this the service it should be; one dedicated to the road safety of the public instead of a cash cow for private sector companies.


Justice for the sacked NCP workers

23 June 09

CHRIS O’KANE, one of the leading organisers of the sacked traffic wardens who are fighting to be re-instated spoke to The Socialist about their struggle.

“In April, 26 of us took part on a half day stoppage after our employer, National Car Parks, refused to deal with a mountain of grievances we had raised over months.

“We were just fed up with management not caring about our working conditions and being ignored. The health and safety standards were deplorable. The toilet floor would regularly be covered in urine from overflowing toilets. We had to walk about in the rain with leaking boots. Men and women had to share changing rooms. Other grievances included breaches of personal confidentiality, faulty equipment, accusations of bullying, even lack of communication from management after threats from dissident republicans had been made against traffic wardens!

“The response of NCP was to ignore all avenues to satisfactorily deal with these issues and summarily sack all 26 workers for taking unofficial strike action.

“At first, it was a shock to find out they could just sack us like that, we were only using our right to strike to achieve basic terms and conditions. But we have all rallied each other to fight on. We have recruited every recently employed traffic warden to our union, NIPSA, and the public support for us has been amazing.

“We have agreed to ballot the members for official strike action and management are worried. They are already making certain improvements in conditions, but this is just to trick people into believing they have changed their ways in the hope that the ballot will not be supported.

“We are also calling on the Minister for Regional Development, Conor Murphy, to support workers’ rights by terminating the contract with NCP so that the service can brought back into public hands. We have received a lot of support from fellow NIPSA members, but have also seen through our experiences the need for proper democracy in our union. We need accountable trade union officials who are democratically elected. That is now really important for workers who, like us, find themselves in dispute with their employers. Myself and another workmate have recently joined the Socialist Party, not just to campaign for democratic unions but also because workers need a political voice to challenge the privatisation agenda in the Assembly.”


Click HERE to read our special NIPSA conference bulletin

NIPSA Conference: Elections see shift to the left

Padraig Mulholland, NIPSA General Council member (personal capacity) 23 June 09

THE RECENT annual conference of the largest trade union in Northern Ireland, NIPSA, has delivered a significant change in the make up of the union’s elected leadership.
All the key positions in the union including President, Vice President and Treasurer have been won by left wing candidates. For the first time in its history, the important Civil Service Group Executive which deals with terms and conditions for Northern Ireland’s civil servants has an elected left wing majority.

In a crushing rejection of the failed strategy of the right wing over the last year, conference delegates returned 15 left candidates to the 25 person Civil Service Executive. These votes for the left reflect deep concern at the lack of progress on issues such as equal pay and privatisation and, as stated repeatedly by conference delegates, the lack of information between the old secretive Civil Service Executive and members on the ground.

NIPSA’s new left leadership has inherited problems that will be challenging. Issues like equal pay have been the subject of secret negotiation for over a year and the role of the right wing in those negotiations has made things more difficult.

The left will have to work with the members to overcome this “legacy” and the resistance to struggle from the unelected NIPSA officials. Significant steps can be taken by the Left to redevelop the fighting capacity of the union. Everyone in NIPSA will be watching.

Civil Service
We want equal pay now!

Carmel Gates, NIPSA Civil Service Executive member (personal capacity) 23 June 09

THE LOWEST paid staff in the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) are angry and frustrated that more than a year after the Assembly First Minister Peter Robinson publicly admitted that they had been discriminated against for decades, they are still waiting for the money they are owed. Some continue to be underpaid by as much as £5,000 per year.  

Their fury has led them to take matters into their own hands and a template letter to MLAs has spread like wildfire. They have organised meetings with political parties and one of those directly led to a debate in the Assembly and the passing of a motion which called on Nigel Dodds to ensure that staff receive the money they are owed within three months. The DUP amendment which sought to remove the three month deadline was withdrawn when it was clear there was no justification for the delay.
Despite this, senior managers in the Civil Service are continuing to drag their feet. They have now initiated an unnecessary review in the hope that they can weasel out of paying what is owed. 

Although Industrial Tribunal cases have been lodged, the critical question is whether or not the civil servants’ union, NIPSA, can achieve their members’ full entitlement through negotiation. If the cases were heard at tribunal, civil servants could be awarded an immediate uplift in their salary and six years back pay as compensation. Union members must not be asked to settle for anything less than that.  

NICS managers have tried to argue that it would be too costly to give members their full entitlement and they claim the money just isn’t there. This is nonsense. There is no shortage of millions for the botched HRConnect contract which is going to cost the public more in overspend alone than has been set aside to honour equal pay commitments.

There is no doubt, however, that the NICS will seek to have the issue settled on the cheap. In all probability, if their tactic on the review doesn’t work, they will approach low paid and cash-strapped civil servants with an offer to settle and give up their rights to an uplift of their salary. The offer will be designed to tempt those who are earning little more than minimum wage to accept a lump sum payment as a buy out of their full entitlement. NIPSA must not allow that to happen. 

The Civil Service Executive, which is the union body responsible for leading the fight on equal pay, must be prepared to deliver a real campaign now and industrial action down the line if the three month deadline set by the Assembly is not met by the Civil Service.

Justice for the sacked NCP workers

23 June 09

CHRIS O’KANE, one of the leading organisers of the sacked traffic wardens who are fighting to be re-instated spoke to The Socialist about their struggle.

“In April, 26 of us took part on a half day stoppage after our employer, National Car Parks, refused to deal with a mountain of grievances we had raised over months.

“We were just fed up with management not caring about our working conditions and being ignored. The health and safety standards were deplorable. The toilet floor would regularly be covered in urine from overflowing toilets. We had to walk about in the rain with leaking boots. Men and women had to share changing rooms. Other grievances included breaches of personal confidentiality, faulty equipment, accusations of bullying, even lack of communication from management after threats from dissident republicans had been made against traffic wardens!

“The response of NCP was to ignore all avenues to satisfactorily deal with these issues and summarily sack all 26 workers for taking unofficial strike action.

“At first, it was a shock to find out they could just sack us like that, we were only using our right to strike to achieve basic terms and conditions. But we have all rallied each other to fight on. We have recruited every recently employed traffic warden to our union, NIPSA, and the public support for us has been amazing.

“We have agreed to ballot the members for official strike action and management are worried. They are already making certain improvements in conditions, but this is just to trick people into believing they have changed their ways in the hope that the ballot will not be supported.

“We are also calling on the Minister for Regional Development, Conor Murphy, to support workers’ rights by terminating the contract with NCP so that the service can brought back into public hands. We have received a lot of support from fellow NIPSA members, but have also seen through our experiences the need for proper democracy in our union. We need accountable trade union officials who are democratically elected. That is now really important for workers who, like us, find themselves in dispute with their employers. Myself and another workmate have recently joined the Socialist Party, not just to campaign for democratic unions but also because workers need a political voice to challenge the privatisation agenda in the Assembly.”