Belfast Telegraph

There is power in a union

By Steven Agnew

Only 56% of public sector workers are members of a trade union. Only.

During the debate on the Public Service Pensions Bill, DUP politicians used this argument as justification for denying trade unions a guaranteed place on the Pensions Board.

Similar figures have been trotted out in the past to question the legitimacy of strike ballots.

I think some politicians need to be careful they don’t undermine their own legitimacy.

In the 2011 Assembly elections the DUP received 30% of the vote. The party that holds the ministries for Finance, Enterprise, Trade & Investment, Health and Social Development; the party that has the power to block any piece of legislation going through the Assembly and of course the party which appoints the First Minister, only has 30% of the vote.

Combined the DUP and Sinn Fein only have 56% of the vote yet they effectively control the government of Northern Ireland. The turnout in 2011 was 54.5% of the eligible adult population so in reality their support is much less. So why then was 56% of total employees deemed an insufficient mandate for trade unions?

The Health Minister Edwin Poots has already found himself in trouble with the courts for his failure to appoint a trade unionist to the Health and Social Care Board.

Ultimately the real objection to unionised action is that minority politicians with a majority of power guard it jealously. Whether it is trade unions or bodies like the Consumer Council or the Human Rights Commission, informed, organised challenge is a threat to their power. However it is essential to our democracy.

There is power in a union.

So when politicians like Sammy Wilson make claims like “most people listening to this debate” remember that they do not represent “most people”. Like every politician in the Assembly (myself included) they only represent a minority interest. This is why we have to govern collectively in Northern Ireland.

It is also why when workers collectivise and send us a message we cannot arrogantly dismiss their arguments. On issues like public sector pensions it is they who represent the majority of employees.

It is a shame that Alliance who held the balance of power on many of the votes on the Pensions Bill did not hear the concerns of those workers. As well as joining the DUP in voting down the amendment on the Pensions Board they effectively blocked an amendment which would have seen the public service pension age kept at 65 in Northern Ireland.

We had a chance of choosing a different path from the Tory led government, but like their friends in the Lib Dem,s Alliance backed David Cameron.

NI21 were conspicuous by their absence and left us still wondering on their position on another key issue for the people of Northern Ireland.

Green Party NI will continue to represent the needs of workers at all levels to ensure the economy serves the needs of people, not the other way around.


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