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.