by Ciaran Mulholland, Belfast
The result of the election for the General Secretary position, in Northern Ireland Public Services Alliance (NIPSA), Northern Ireland’s largest union, will become known on June 25th. The left candidate, Carmel Gates, has mounted a serious challenge and is widely seen as the front runner. There are three other candidates, however, and in such a crowded field it would be difficult to call the result in the context of a “normal” election campaign. This election has been anything but normal.
The election was called at very short notice when the sitting general secretary, Alison Millar, announced her intention to stand down unexpectedly. It has been fought on Covid-19 rules, with no opportunity for face-to-face meetings or to leaflet workplaces. The circumstances of the election have also greatly increased the risk of a fraudulent outcome, as thousands of ballot papers have been posted out to empty offices and are entirely inaccessible to union members who follow Covid-19 rules and stay at home but not to anyone who is intent on stealing votes. With few safeguards to prevent election fraud, the outcome is even more uncertain than it would otherwise be.
When the election was called, left activists in the union recognised immediately its importance. The trade union movement is at a key juncture. Ten years of austerity have cut real wages and savaged public services. Workers are proud of the role they have played during the pandemic and angry about being treated with contempt. Building strong groupings of left activists in all unions is vital as workers seek to both defend their rights and go on to the offensive for real change. Leadership also matters, and no serious trade unionist or socialist activist stands aside when major unions elect a new General Secretary. The election of a fighter to the GS election position in NIPSA would have an impact within NIPSA, but also across the union movement, and the wider working class.
Arguably even more important is the current political context. Northern Ireland is at a watershed moment. It is exactly 100 years old, but no one is celebrating. Brexit and the changing demographics of the North have created profound uncertainty, tension, and fear. The unique role the trade unions play in Northern Ireland, uniting working people whatever their background, and giving voice to the desire for peace and a better future, means that the election of an anti-sectarian left GS in NIPSA would have ramifications far beyond the union. In these important ways, the election is one of the most significant in many years for any major union on these islands.
Carmel’s fighting record
Activists from across the union, including NIPSA’s Broad Left, supported Carmel Gates, a socialist and Marxist with four decades of activism behind her for the GS position. It was widely acknowledged from the outset that she had a real chance of success, so long as the election was fair. Carmel has topped the poll year after year in the membership-based elections for the leading body of the union, the General Council, and she has been elected President of the union (by conference delegates) on five separate occasions. These successes illustrate the esteem she is held in by the activists and members. This is not about personality politics, however, but about hard-earned respect. Carmel is known as a dedicated and competent activist, and as someone who resolutely defends the unity of the working class and fights for a socialist alternative to division, violence, poverty, and despair.
Despite the difficulties, Carmel has fought a strong campaign. She rightly emphasised her track record of 40 years of union activity. Members of any trade union want a leader who is grounded in experience, both in the workplace and in every field of trade union activity, from workplace representation, defending members in disciplinary hearings and tribunals, sitting on the union’s democratically elected committees, to negotiating with management. They also want to be led by someone with a serious approach to the application of the most important weapon in the armoury of the movement: the strike.
Carmel put out a leaflet on how an industrial strategy should be built during the campaign and called on members to draw inspiration from the recent successful strike action of creche workers at Queen’s University Belfast. She pointed to the need for all sections of the membership, and all workplaces, to be well organised so that they are ready to take action when it is necessary to do so. If NIPSA can grow its membership, and strengthen its network of well-trained and confident reps, it will be able to negotiate from a position of strength. She argued that all previous significant gains have been won through industrial action or the threat of industrial action and re-stated the old saying: you will not win at the negotiating table what you have not already won in struggle. She laid particular emphasis on the recruitment of the layers of precarious workers now employed across the civil and public services, and the need to fight to replace short-term posts with proper jobs. She undertook to work with members, reps and the union’s elected bodies to democratically agree on a strategic approach to winning real gains for members on pay, pensions, and conditions from her first day in office.
Her campaign also sought to link industrial issues with the political and raised the dangers facing the union, the wider movement, and the entire working class. There is deep unease in working class communities about the months and years ahead. Workers know that there is a risk of peace unravelling and of violence again erupting onto our streets. Carmel pointed to the role of the trade unions in building united movements against threats and killings in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, which checked the worst excesses of the paramilitaries. During those years, NIPSA, with Carmel to the fore, also took a firm stand against state violence (notably the rampages of the British army’s Parachute Regiment in Coalisland, Carmel’s hometown, in 1992) and successfully did so without splitting the union. The union also continuously pointed to the underlying social and economic conditions which foster violence and campaigned against the youth unemployment and poverty that blight working class communities.
This firm stand is summed up in the constitution of NIPSA which states that an object of the union is “to promote independent, cross-community, anti-sectarian trade unionism”. These are not empty words but summarise an entire political approach maintained over five decades by left activists in NIPSA despite the fierce violence which raged for much of that time. A strong and united NIPSA is still a necessity as we struggle to keep sectarianism out of the workplaces and in raising a strong voice against a return to violence. Sectarian forces are actively seeking to bring divisive issues into NIPSA and all unions through a concerted attempt to win the movement to a position which favours one section of the community over the other. If these efforts are successful a split in the movement is inevitable. In the 1970s, sectarian forces argued for an “Ulster TUC” and socialists in NIPSA and other unions fought to maintain the unity of the movement. The struggle to defend and build working class unity is the same now as it was then.
A wide range of activists have recognised the dangers ahead, acted accordingly, and worked enthusiastically for the election of a socialist general secretary in the North’s largest union at this watershed moment. Whether their efforts are successful we will soon know. There is genuine concern that the election will be stolen, and warning shots have already been fired across the bows of those who may have engaged in malpractice which may require to be followed up.
Whatever the outcome the problems NIPSA members and all working-class people face will remain. The solutions will not change either. Working people need well organised, membership-led, and combative trade unions. Such unions are built through determination and hard work. But building the unions is not enough. Working-class people urgently need independent political representation. We need a mass party that articulates the united interests of all workers from whatever background and fights for a socialist solution to all the issues facing us. When we wake on June 26th the struggle against the miseries facing the working class will continue. This struggle will be emboldened and strengthened if Carmel Gates is elected, but if this is not the outcome we will fight on, for there is no other way forward.