Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Unions combine with employers to halt strike

The Nipsa classroom assistants’ strike suffered a major blow when the other unions, Unison and the GMB, voted to accept the latest offer made by the education and library. This decision came at a meeting of the negotiating council involving unions and employers at which the offered was formally tabled and voted upon. With Unison and the GMB for, Nipsa against and the T&GWU abstaining a technical majority of the classroom assistants have voted to accept the offer. The employers will now contact each classroom assistant individually to ask them whether they want to accept the offer.

In the wake of the vote Nipsa announced that it was suspending its latest round of strike action (a two day strike each week). It claimed that its final strike day was in protest at the manner in which the offer had been accepted. Throughout the dispute employers had demanded that Nipsa ballot its members on the latest offer. In the days prior to the meeting of the negotiating council Nipsa had agreed ballot its members. This is after arguing against such a move on the basis that its members had already clearly rejected the offer. To concede to this demand was a major retreat which only emboldened the employers to press ahead with imposing it. It smacked of a desperate attempt to forestall the inevitable stitch up.

Yet in some ways this outcome helped the leadership of Nipsa. It enabled them to end the strike and absolve themselves of responsibility for the debacle. They could claim that they, like their members, were the victims of the other unions’ treachery. This does contain an element of truth. At the start of the dispute all the unions had a formal agreement to defend current pay and conditions of classroom assistants’. But following the slightly improved offer, the GMB, Unison and the T&GWU, immediately broke ranks. They made misleading public statements about the nature of the offer and denounced Nipsa for taking strike action. There are also suspicions that ballot they conducted on the offer were manipulated, with some members not being consulted and others who were not classroom assistants being balloted. It is doubtful whether the unions who voted for the offer actually do represent the majority of classroom assistants. In working hand in glove with employers to put down the strike they have played a thoroughly reactionary role.

However, divisions and treachery while important factors, do not in themselves account for the defeat of the strike. Nipsa leaders, while appearing to be the most militant, operated within the framework of respecting the sovereignty of the other union leaders. No attempt was made to challenge classroom assistants from other unions to support the strike. Nipsa leaders failed to support the claims by some its members that the Unison and GMB ballots on the offer were rigged. Most fatally Nipsa, along with the other unions, totally supported the Executive and Assembly. They perpetuated the myth that Stormont could deliver a just settlement, despite the fact that every party, Sinn Fein in particular, denounced the classroom assistants and did their upmost to bring the strike to an end.

The defeat of classroom assistants strike sends an ominous warning. Despite having a clearly just case; despite having public support; and despite their own determination (17 says on strike in total), they went down to defeat. This strike has demonstrated starkly that the working class in north is in no state to defend itself against the intensifying attack on its living standards.

17 comments:

Rankin said...

Welcome back to your spot. I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of the role of the unions' leadership. Where is the answer to their treachery, there is no sign of a fight back in the unions themselves, no forces to intervene, no layer of activists at rank and file level. All we have is years of bureaucracy and the careerist hanger's on that that has produced. Things will have to develop apace if the attacks planned by the assembly are to be resisted. Incidently the assembly Parties have the aid of the union bureaucracies to aid them in talking down expectations for what the gravy train on the hill can deliver. Given that all of them stand to lose the support of their working class base and both the UUP and the SDLP are attempting to flag up their proletarian sympathies the aid of the accomplished sooth sayers of ICTU is a valuable asset to them and they are bound to be keen on a northern version of social partnership. Birds of a feather and all that. Hope they all fall together. Fraternal greetings, and welcomwe again.

Teecher said...

I don't agree that the working class are defenceless. The classroom assistants were very impressive - full of life and energy. They are blind to the weakness of their own union leadership and the role of the capitalist parties, but one function of the strike is to open peoples eyes

Rankin said...

Glad to hear it teecher, but energy is one thing and converting that into an organised, consistant fightback is another. I don't mean to give the impression that the working class is defenceless, only to assert that there is a very steep gradient to climb. The class room assistants were inspirational there is no doubt, the confrontation with the Sinners at Stormont being a case in point. The point I'm trying to make however is that the TU movement, or 90% of it, is like a deadening blanket, smothering out such struggles and this gels perfectly with Stormont's requirements for a vehicle for lowering working class expectations. Yours Fraternally, Rankin.

Anonymous said...

it's all very well pointing out the treachery of some of the unions and the weakness of NIPSA and I'll agree that learning this is very important but what exactly is the SD alternative? How could the strike have been won? Could it have been won? The answers to these questions don't exactly stand out.

Rankin said...

The need for democratic, accountable union leaderships is one answer that, I feel, stands out. My complaint, excuse my carping, is that nothing seems to be happening on the ground. A victory isn't even necessary if the experience of defeat prompted an organised rank and file response. Sadly there is none, as yet, unless something has happened that I am ignorant of.Declining economic conditions may bring a response but[before someone calls me an economist] a conscious push for democracy is also essential to mobilise a rejuvenating layer of workers and produce a new leadership at shop steward level at least. Yours Rankin.

Teecher said...

I think one of the factors in the demoralisation of the left is the insistance that we have some solution. The solution is up to the working class. What socialists can do is provide the analysis. In the current case, as Rankin argues, a rank and file organisation, independant of and opposed to the bureaucracy, is a necessary condition for moving forward. Unfortunately the majority of the left, in the name of pragmatism and getting things done, prioritise unity with the bureaucracy and become another layer preventing independent organisation of the workers

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid teecher I could not disagree with you more - socialists presenting a solution a sign of demoralisation!!!!!

Surely if socialists are repositories of the lessons of past working class struggles this gives them some clues at least about what a solution would look like, surely more than ordinary workers would - otherwise what good is all their knowledge? I'm not asking for a guarantee just some sort of strategy that would have had some hope of winning this strike. Putting forward a rank and file movement is all very well but this is like saying the way to get rich is to have lots of money - and how exactly do you do that? might be the obvious reply.

If the solution is 'up to the working class' what's the point of the blog? Should we all go back to bed and wait for them (whoever they are)to work it all out. And they say Leninist groups want to give leadership!!

By the way, Rankin, economic conditions supporting working class militancy have hardly been better in the north of Ireland for decades so don't be lookinhg here for any spontaneous solution to these problems.

Anonymous said...

PS. I noticed your article finishes by saying that the working class in the north is in no position to defend itself. Now teecher is saying that its up to them! Does that mean wer'e stuffed? And while you're answering this question how about making an attempt to answer the others I put as well.

Teecher said...

Are the relations between labour and capital tilted so far in the direction of the workers that we can expect spontaneous victories on the part of the workers? No

Are conditions so poor that the workers see no aternative to collective action? No - most seek individual methods of survival.

Is there a large and coherent left that can take independent exemplary action and hope to mobilise a section of workers? No

In that case the left is reduced to listing the necessary political conditons for victory.

In this case that means a rank and file movement. But a rank and file movement is not an organisational question but a political one. It involves workers casting aside the widespread illusions in the Stormont executive and parties, especially Sinn Fein, as agents of progressive change. It means a recognition that the union bureaucracy are their enemies and that they have to be independent even of left bureaucrats such as NIPSA who stay inside the rules and don't go beyond protest to actually close schools and organise secondary action and who don't go beyond polite disagreement with the other bureaucrats who are strangling the life of the strike.

I've had these sorts of discussions with classroom assistants. They don't have any difficulty with the arguments, but see the task of independent organisation as just too difficult

Rankin said...

I think Teecher definately has a point about becoming another inhibitive layer.I am unaware of any solution put by socialists to rejuvenate union militancy. The problem as I see it is that as economic conditions worsen workers are likely to come increasingly in to conflict with conservative TU leaders and I assume from anonymous' response to Teecher that the preferred option is "unity with the bureaucracy". I am not simply making assumptions about this conflict with the "higher ups". There is already a deep mistrust of union leaderships among many "ordinary" workers. My point is that this subjective tendency needs help to develop in to a genuine independant rank and file movement. An alliance with the "suits" won't help. Your approach raises some questions for me. If we pursue this strategy, will this activity focus on the ills of the bureaucracy? If it will, at what point do we jump back over the line and attack bureaucratism per-se? More importantly, if we are not openly campaigning against the bureaucrats how will we be seen by the rank and file? Will we be percieved as just another faction chasing positions and benefits in elections with a 20% turnout? Further; will this proposed unity allow for a campaign for democracy and accountability in ICTU? If we are attacking the bureaucracy in this way, how can there be unity with them? I believe any socialist campaign in the unions must start from the bottom up, not the second or third rung. Building a rank and file movement is not a get rich quick scheme but I do think that pursuing a flimsy unity with vested interests is chasing fools gold.

Anonymous said...

Teecher tells us that the workers won’t win spontaneously, in fact they’ll hardly struggle at all unless things get worse (shades of the ‘hit them over the head and they’ll fight back’ position which I thought Marxists rejected). At the same time all the left can do is put forward a few ‘political’ conditions. (There’s no point blaming the left – you’ve already said they’re too small anyway.)

This once again looks like my ‘we’re stuffed’ description. Invoking the word political doesn’t absolve one from putting forward a strategy and perspective for victory – in fact that’s what it’s supposed to assist creating but aside from no reliance on the bureaucracy I don’t see it in anything that’s been said.

What does this actually mean in concrete terms for the classroom assistants’ strike? What should they have done differently?

Rankin, I don’t support unity with the bureaucracy, but workers will only fight them if the bureaucrats stand in their way in their struggles. So what exactly is the way being proposed that the bureaucrats will obstruct?

What should assistants have done when they were on strike that would have made a difference?

Should there have been an all out strike? What difference would that have made?

Secondary action? Who with and against whom?

Win parents to the campaign? Organise them? How?

Seek to win assistants in other unions over the heads of their own NIPSA and the other unions? How?

Make the issue relevant to more workers by politicising it? How?

And how do you do all this without workers thinking you’ve just given them more enemies to defeat when it’s hard enough already?

I’m not saying there’s an easy answer but the more concrete it is (and we’ve just had a very concrete strike) the more convincing it will be.

Rankin said...

I'm sure you already know but the way in which bureaucrats stand in the way of struggles is quite sophisticated. The stubborn failure to confront legislation, the system of balloting and the associated cooling off period, the education of new shop stewards to prioritise the playing down of expectations. The lack of democracy and the deadening lack of response to any initiative taken by workers on the ground. The total lack of enthusiastic leadership. Surely the classroom assistants is a classic example? Can you tell me of a recent strike that the "higher ups" did not obstruct in some way or another recently? Is a campaign for democratic unions too much to ask for? Would the bureaucrats obstruct that? You bet they would. No fire will ever kindle with a wet blanket over it.If you are not for unity with the "suits" then in what concrete way are you against them? You do tend to leave your own questions unanswered. Providing a concrete perspective of your own might be more interesting than simply trying to goad Teecher. Rankin.

Teecher said...

I agree with Rankin. It's time to put up or shut up. If you see a way forward with the bureaucracy then say so.

It not much use criticising my views when you misrepresent me. I did not say that worse means better, but that revolutioary upsurge is more likely in times of change. We have just gone through a massive boom which actually saw a decline in militancy and Joe Craig explains our take on this on the main site. We are now entering a period of quite savage attacks and they make possible a defensive upsurge. We can not predict the subjective factor - when will workers actions become a new consciousness?

In relation to the classroom assistants strike there was one key event when bus drivers turned back at the picket. It was quickly explained that the picket was not a picket and that the assistants had not been instructed to ask other workers to respect the picket line.

In the absence of that demand on other workers the action had more of the characteristics of a protest and, as a protest, it was doomed

Anonymous said...

Yes teecher - if I saw a way forward with the bureaucracy I would have said so. In fact I have said the opposite but no one appears to have noticed. To spell it out for those who find it hard to read.

I DO NOT SUPPORT THE TRADE UNION BUREAUCRACY.

I DO THINK A NEW DEMOCRATIC TRADE UNION MOVEMENT IS NEEDED.

I SUPPORT THE CREATION OF A RANK AND FILE MOVEMENT

Is that clear now? Can you answer my questions as clearly?

If teacher thinks platitudes about 'revolutionary upsurges are more likely in a time of change' is going to convince anyone of anything – well think again.

He/She accuses me of putting words in his/her mouth by saying he claims ‘that worse means better’ but a few sentences later he/she says, without the slightest justification from him/her, that ‘We are now entering a period of quite savage attacks and they make possible a defensive upsurge.’ Looks suspiciously like ‘worse means better’ to me, or not a kick in the ass off it.

We weren’t talking about revolutionary upsurges. We are talking about a relatively small strike which this site thought important enough to put up a post about. I have asked some reasonably sensible, unobjectionable questions like – could the strike have been won? With what sort of strategy could it have been won? These are relatively straight forward questions. Quite obvious ones really.

To be fair inside one or two of the posts an answer to these questions has been struggling to get out but the last two posts have betrayed an inability to answer them covered up with a bit of anger and trying to turn the question you can’t answer round to asking me for it!!

It doesn’t bode well for debate on this site if you have a post on a strike, blame all round you for its failure and can’t even say if this mattered by being unable to answer the simple question – could it have been won anyway?

Take a bit of advice. Don’t assume views in a debater that they might not have. Deal with the question.

On this issue - if the strike was simply a protest then it had no chance of winning. Why can’t you just come out and say that? Or maybe saying it ‘was doomed’ is the answer I have been looking for?

If it could have won (and you still can’t bring yourselves to even imply an answer) how might it have done so? I’m not looking for guarantees, no silver bullets or garlic or stakes through the heart. Forget even that it is me who’s asking if that helps you. Think that some other workers who might be on strike in future are asking. What would you say to them that might encourage them to go ahead and strike without having ponder the profundity or revolutionary upsurges being more likely in times of change D’oh!!

Anonymous said...

PS Teecher, telling people to put up or shut up is no way to encourage debate!

Rankin. P. said...

Teecher. I agree that as we enter a period of increased activity, upsurges of one kind or another will undoubtedly take place. On the subjective side the analysis that socialists provide needs to find its way in to the hands of workers in struggle. While I believe substituting your own activity for increased workers activity does not speed up the formation of a new consciousness at the same time,however, when workers do begin to develop spontaneously then the analysis you provide must be able to find its way in to their hands. This is not a criticism of your position, it is more a question of quantity than quality.[More means more?] The seed must reach the soil. The coming year may provide a broader audience for that analysis, I wish you luck in expanding to meet the need. Rankin.

Teecher said...

Anon

Sorry for the delay in replying and for the poor communication between us. It's my experience that few posters ask questions without having their own nostrum. My apologies if you are the exception.

Could the strike have been won? Yes.
All struggles have the possibilities of victory. Marxists don't start off by telling workers they are doomed. They try to set forward the conditions for victory.

What would have brougt victory in this strike? The main thing the strikers had to do was bring some section of society to a stand still, either the educatuion system as a whole and/or the assembly.

This would have required secondary action and at the moment this is illegal - in fact a union bureaucracy are breaking the law if they do not make every effort to discipline or expel members advocating secondary action.

For this reason the strikers would have required an organisation separate from and independent of the bureaucracy. I don't believe the vast majority saw that, although they did begin to suspect that their leadership were incompetent.

Paralysing the political establishment at Stormont was an easier task than the whole education system, but required a recognition that the strikers had no friends at Stormont and that lobbying MLAs was not an effective strategy. There has been a great deal of popular support for the Stormont settlement and a widespread belief that a local assembly will be responsive to the needs of workers and this view was widely supported in the strike.

I see the strike as a skirmish in an ongoing war. The strike has made possible some advances in understanding that can be useful in future. The biggest advance has been to seriously weaken Sinn Fein's cover as a party of the left. The party acts as a major barrier to the re-emergence of socialist politics and its exposure is to be welcomed.

To a lesser extent their has been a weakening in confidence in the assembly and the idea that local capitalists are progressive because they are local. Recognising the reactionary nature of the assembly parties is another necessary condition to successful workers action.