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Financial Rectitude

The bosses case against the nurses

10 February 2019

In the ongoing battle over nurses pay it is worth examining the arguments and strategy of the establishment.

A good overview of that position is given by Pat Leahy of the Irish Times. He patronises the nurses. They are entitled to their feelings, but they don't see the big picture available to government and employers.

Leahy ignores the issue of parity - that nurses are paid substantially less than  other public sector graduates. He argues that there is no real difficulty with retention, and that young nurses are streaming out of the country not because of pay, but because of a sense of adventure.

He agrees that nurses are not well paid but goes on to argue that they are comfortable and under no great strain because of their pay. He accepts that there is a sense of injustice in that public sector pay was savagely sliced to meet the bankers debt, but argues that this belief is to some extent delusional because  public sector workers received extravagant pay awards during the boom years and that these pay rises are part of the reason for the crash. A repetition of  the old story - we were all to blame for the crash and it is wrong to focus on the bankers and speculators.  The other old  chestnut of divide and rule  is also rolled out. Private sector workers suffered even more in terms of  jobs and pay where public sector workers kept their  jobs and elements of their pensions. They would resent higher pay for nurses.

The main case of the nurses leadership is that an exception can be made within the public service stability agreement without ending the agreement itself

Leahy dismisses that idea. Other unions are waiting in the wings with strong cases of their own  Behind them stand FORSA and SIPTU and INTO , privately  calling on the government to hold the line to justify their leadership’s decision to recommend the restricted payments of the PSSA.

The failure of the PSSA would lead to the fall of the government. Breaking public sector pay bounds would smash the budget. The government could not govern because the reputation of the Irish government is based on financial rectitude and this must be maintained at all costs.

What is financial rectitude? Quite simply it is the unconditional guarantee by successive governments that banks and bondholders will never lose out, expanded through the Troika programme to guarantee payment of the sovereign debt until 2054 and through an ongoing programme of selloff and privatisation of public assets.

This represents no struggle for our local capitalists. Their normal mode of operation is to act as agent for imperialism and to enrich themselves in the process. Through the years of austerity wealth has flowed from the poor to the rich, making Ireland one of the most unequal societies in Europe.

The scandal of the children's hospital, where costs were inflated by almost half a billion and the facts kept from public representatives, is seen as an argument for increased pay for the nurses. If the government can waste money at this level why not pay up? But the disparity is part of capitalist rule. The tendering system guarantees profit for private industry and feeds local corruption. The flow of wealth is from the workers to the capitalists. Decent wages would threaten the money tree.

The intensity of the nurses struggle is bringing into sharp relief the support of the majority of public sector unions for PSSA and for pay restraint. The thinking behind that is that there is no alternative to capitalism and that only by ensuring  that Irish capitalism is successful will the wages and conditions of the workers finally recover. Until then they must be patient.

This model is starting to  disintegrate. A decade of austerity has been topped by the triumphant  proclamation of recovery. Yet the limited restoration of some public sector pay has been accompanied by indications that overall pay and pensions will remain depressed for the indefinite future and that the two tier pay system in public sector pay will continue. The increase in mortgage and rental prices has largely wiped out even the partial restoration of pay and the outflow  of wealth to the rich and to transnational bondholders continues.

Capitalist strategy is reaching the limit of sustainability. The claim is that there is no crisis in recruitment or in the everyday functioning of the health service is contradicted by the hundreds of online pictures of Irish nurses from around the world begging for a victory so that they can return home and by daily tales of overcrowding, crisis and of student nurses left in charge of dozens of patients. A defeat for the nurses will also be a defeat for patients and for the health service. As  the housing crisis and endless health scandals show, a further collapse in the hospital system would not cause second thoughts to our rulers and we would be left to the mercy of herbal cures and doctor internet.

The leaders of the nurses strike and their supporters have shown great determination and have gone further than previous attempts to break out  of the prison of wage restriction. They have mobilised the very real public support for their cause. What they have not done is confront the cold calculation of class interest advanced by the government, hoping instead that the bosses will accept their plea of exceptionalism and that a deal can be done without overthrowing the whole edifice of public sector austerity.

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