Defend union democracy even in a time of crisis!

Covid 19 has not only thrown capitalism into crisis it has also presented the trade union movement with some thorny democracy issues.

The normal functioning of unions, members‘ meetings, conferences and elections, although often imperfect, are the democratic life blood of the movement.  It is true democracy and the militancy of trade unions that determines their ability to fight to defend members. Understandably democratic functions were temporarily disrupted and, in some cases, set aside as the movement grappled with the initial shock wave of the Covid-19 crisis.

For some it was an unavoidable reality in the immediate aftermath of the lockdown measures but there is a danger that some in the trade union movement will consciously, or otherwise, now see an opportunity to abandon normal democratic accountability and concentrate power and decision making in a few hands.  Inevitably this would lead to decisions that reflect only the views of a few lay members and a handful of trade union officials and inevitably lead to the disenfranchisement of the wider trade union membership.

The umbrella organisation for the trade unions in the north of Ireland, NIC-ICTU faced a dilemma when its planned spring conference could not proceed.  To its credit, the conference was merely postponed with a commitment given that it would instead take place in the Autumn.  Northern Ireland’s biggest trade union, NIPSA, has done likewise and has announced that its Annual Conference will not take place as scheduled in May.  Instead, a truncated conference is being considered for the Autumn, subject to health & safety and other considerations.

NIPSA has also taken the decision that elections for committees and officerships of the union that would usually take place through a branch vote at the annual conference will now be carried out by a direct ballot of branches.

These steps are welcome and they, along with measures to ensure that meetings of committees can function remotely at all levels of the union structure and that members receive a flow of necessary information, should be replicated across the whole trade union movement.

No doubt operating democratic structures will be more difficult in this period and it is likely that things will not run entirely smoothly for a considerable period of time, perhaps years, but it is worth remembering that throughout the 40 years of conflict in Northern Ireland the trade unions had to find ways to continue to do their work despite the raging violence around them.  If they could do it in the days before Zoom and other software applications, then surely there is no excuse for the unions of today to abandon democracy.

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