Despite an overwhelming vote by workers in favour of strike action, NIPSA’s Civil Service Executive Committee has stopped short of following through on their wishes. We publish this piece by a NIPSA activist based in Belfast, urging them to respect the democratic expression of the members, and in turn urging members to put the pressure on the union leaders to prepare for immediate strike action.
“A union is only as strong as its members are well-organised and united.”
For the past 13 years of Tory Government, workers across the civil service and arms-length bodies have suffered suppressed salaries, despite ever-increasing workloads. We have worked hard to deliver services through years of austerity, Brexit, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ongoing cost of living crisis. In addition, we worked through two collapses of the NI Executive (2017-2022 and 2022-present) while MLAs, for the overwhelming part, collected full salaries.
Throughout this time, we’ve seen more and more colleagues in tears over turning to food banks to feed their kids, colleagues struggling with burnout and having to work additional jobs just to keep a roof over their heads, colleagues whose homes were ruined over the winter period due to their pipes bursting because they couldn’t afford the home-heating costs, and so on.
Understandably, we took the decision to vote to withdraw services from those that need our help most during the toughest time in living memory. We prepared ourselves for loss of pay at a time when inflation means we would feel it harder than most in our monthly pay packet. We understood it is crucial that wherever employers refuse to negotiate a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay that we workers use our power to call a stoppage to business as usual.
A Derisory Offer
It should therefore come as no surprise to say the decision from the leadership of the North of Ireland’s largest public sector union, NIPSA, not to act upon the very clear and forceful mandate provided by civil service members for strike action against an insulting pay offer has been met with considerable anger across significant sections of our rank-and-file membership.
Prior to the strike ballot, NIPSA’s General Secretary Carmel Gates quite rightly deemed the less than 2% pay offer as a derisory insult and, as such, NIPSA’s Civil Service Executive Committee—responsible for representing the will of members—subsequently put the offer to a ballot with a strong recommendation to vote for strike action. Polls opened in mid-February, closed in early March, and a resounding result of 85% of members voted in favour of strike action based on the clear understanding that we, like members of other trade unions, have no choice but to fight for a long overdue above-inflation pay rise.
Workers Want a Strike
It is deeply disappointing, then, that the following day NIPSA’s Civil Service Executive Committee would meet only to conclude that members should engage in work-to-rule from 15 March 2023. They did this instead of urgently acting in accordance with the overwhelming majority of voting NIPSA members across the civil service and arms-length bodies, who unquestionably want a strike.
This tactic is only effective in-so-far as it is combined with widespread strike action. This is what the members voted for. Anything less from Union leaders would only instil disillusionment, set a bad precedent for future NIPSA ballots, and signify a backward step in the movement for fair pay. It is up to the rank and file members of NIPSA to put pressure on union leaders to ensure this doesn’t happen.
NIPSA’s Civil Service Executive Committee assures members our General Secretary will continue to write unread and unanswered letters to the NI Secretary of State in the hopes of securing a meeting; but the only message Chris Heaton-Harris and his class occupying the NI Office will pay any attention to is sound of marching feet making their way from government offices to picket lines.
Respect the Democratic Mandate
The leadership of NIPSA has a duty to respect the democratic mandate of its members, and call a coordinated strike across the civil service. In the midst of a cost-of-living crisis where underpaid and undervalued members are struggling to make ends meet, we cannot afford the passivity of reluctant leaders. Patience may be a virtue, but as sister trade unions turn to consider pay deals or vote to accept strike-won pay offers, time is of the essence for NIPSA members across the civil service and arms-length bodies. The time for action is now.
Almost a year after first consulting trade union branches about the NICS Pay Claim 2022/23, NIPSA’s Civil Service Executive Committee must reaffirm its commitment—beyond just words—to fight for inflation plus an additional cost of living increase of 5% on all points and allowances. As the North of Ireland’s largest public sector union, at a time of the largest attack on workers’ rights and freedoms in decades from our own employer, it is outrageous NIPSA’s Civil Service Executive Committee, too, is refusing to respect the voice of workers’ democracy.
With this in mind, we appeal to all our fellow NIPSA members across the civil service and arms-length bodies to urgently make contact with their NIPSA Branch Secretaries to demand NIPSA’s Civil Service Executive Committee respect our democratic wishes and prepare for immediate strike action.
We encourage members to call for Branch Meetings and workplace discussions on how we move forward to ensure those responsible for representing the will of members do so. A union is only as strong as its members are well-organised and united.
There is a democratic mandate to strike in the civil service. NIPSA leaders must respect this mandate and call strike action to put real pressure on the Tories and the wider Executive parties.