There is power in a union

From Steven Agnew’s Debate NI column, 29 January 2014.

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.

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