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The demobilisation of the health workers strike

31 July 2019

'Meaningful' Negotiations

With the threat of a complete health service shutdown well behind them Siptu's leadership eventually allowed their members calls for action to be heard. In order to protect a deal with the bosses, which the bosses recently said didn't exist, the leadership of Siptu had compelled their members to cross the striking nurses’ picket lines in February.  Now the workers who were subject to that cynical instruction are facing up to the fact that they have been 'played' while management reins in the blustering pretensions of the Siptu leaders who issued the vile instruction to cross picket lines.

Members on the non medical side of the HSE had been pushing for industrial action over pay raises related to a 'promised' way out, for some staff, of a wage restraining agreement made by Siptu. The whole thing has a feel of 'Groundhog Day' about it! The same dispute producing the same majority for industrial action occurred on 7th march 2017 over the same issue among others, “the reintroduction of a job evaluation scheme”, an aspect of the Haddington road deal of 2013, addressed again in the Lansdowne road deal of 2015.  The 2017 strike was to coincide with a work to rule by the nurses who were taking action over pay and staff retention issues but it was almost immediately settled on the basis of reassurances from the union bureaucracy that they had resolved the outstanding issues.

Expectations were raised among the members by the union leaders who reassured them that the job re-evaluation scheme would be reintroduced and would result in substantial increases in pay for those who developed their roles. But these reassurances turned out to be based on nothing more than at best unsubstantiated promises or at worst a cynical ploy by the union leadership to push their members into accepting what was inadequate deal.

The latest upsurge of the dispute has again seen a ballot for industrial action being decisively won with 94% support. 10'000 workers employed as porters, household and catering workers, healthcare assistants, maternity care assistants, laboratory aides, chefs and surgical instrument technicians declared their intention to strike on June 20th with further action planned for the 25th  and 26th  June and 2nd , 3rd  and 4th  of July if, in Siptu's words “ the HSE don’t enter meaningful negotiations”. Of course in reality they were always going to enter into any negotiations, with or without 'meaning', that is the ICTU's default position.

The Show

As pressure builds up from below trade union full time bureaucrats feel compelled to make a show of it and allow their members to mobilise, but they are careful about it. In this case they were very careful not to allow their members to mobilise at the same time as the INMO in February, even though the present disagreement dates back to action in 2017 and is predated again by members unhappiness with the detail of the Haddington and Lansdowne road deals. Once the nurses dispute in February had been demobilised Siptu's leadership were good to go.

Siptu deputy general secretary for the public sector John King made the tactic explicit when he called for “meaningful engagement with government on the resolution to this long standing issue once and for all”. Why is the issue “long standing” in the first place? Why did they not take action on this 'long standing issue' when the rest of the health workers were on strike, why has it been running since before 2017? Unity is strength so why did they undermine that unity by calling on these workers to cross the nurses’ picket lines? All questions that lead to the inadequacy of the deals signed in 2013 and 2015 and the union bureaucracy's determined defence of them.

John King gives the politically corrupt nature of the game away when he sings the praises of their own efforts to be 'straight dealers' in their negotiations with the employer; “our members have played by the rules and kept the health services going in recent times. They deserve to get the pay justice they have waited so patiently for”.  Here we have it straight from the horse’s mouth. Siptu's leadership  expects to gain marginal benefits for standing by the employer when the INMO went on strike and are now calling for a 'reward' for their efforts as their members demand the pay re-evaluations the bureaucrats promised but failed to deliver going back as far as 2013.

An Effective Strike

Issues are being revisited as negotiated settlements and union negotiators' assurances are frequently proving themselves to be unsatisfactory. The regularity with which struggles are arising on old issues also reflects the sleight of hand used by the bureaucrats to maintain the wage restraining deals they have made with the state. This whole process is tending to erode the bureaucracy's credibility in the eyes of many rank and file trade unionists but although pressure from below has increased in recent years the bureaucracy remains firmly in control.

Their exercise of that control was clearly expressed in the obvious haste with which Siptu's Paul Bell called off the first day of action for 'discussions' at the request of the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC).  Bell's jump directly in to these discussions at the WRC came after Siptu's call for 'meaningful' talks and gave the impression that something was on the table. With the strike cancelled the talks proved fruitless and the management's refusal to grant them a fig leaf meant Siptu's hasty entry into talks which were most definitely not meaningful clearly signalled their desire to derail the imminent industrial action.

Despite their efforts, when the strike did eventually go ahead on the 26th it was a runaway success! Thousands of procedures were cancelled, the strike effected 38 hospitals and was completely solid and, as with the earlier INMO dispute, it had widespread public support. The logical next step would have been to use the tools at the disposal of the working class to escalate the action, it had been completely successful and could bear fruit for all trade unionists if it showed signs that it was tending to cause a domino effect. But that would mean breaking with the unions' partnership with the state in the Lansdowne road deal.

The Revolving Door

Avoiding such a break with the state is front and centre of the union leaderships' strategic considerations, they are committed to a 'class-peace process', and in this case, as in all others, they reverted to default position. Paul Bell of Siptu announced immediately after the day of action that they would attend more talks at the LRC, obviously to talk 'meaningfully' to a stone deaf HSE management.  Again the HSE management refused to budge and when the talks failed Siptu were left high and dry.

At this point, with the Siptu leaders facing the “horror” of having to continue with the industrial action, the Taoiseach complained bitterly in the Dail that it was unheard of that a union would refuse to attend the Labour Court, his message from the Dail amounted to … Get in to the Labour Court now and stop your play-acting!... And stop they did!  All further industrial action was called off!

The mechanism for demobilising workers struggles has been made crystal clear by Varadkar's intervention which sent Siptu's leaders scampering of to the WRC and then the Labour Court the next day as the whole exercise in working class mobilisation was put swiftly to bed.

Trade union members are trapped by their leadership in a revolving door, and that door leads to the Workplace Relations Commission en-route to the Labour Court. Workers seize the opportunity allowed to them by the bureaucracy to take action, they walk out on strike but immediately find themselves back in the WRC again.

The issue over the job re-evaluation scheme had been suppressed by the Siptu leadership until they could contain it no longer and had to call a strike but the long established mechanisms of control, the process of conciliation and arbitration dominated by government and wealthy trade union appointees, acts to remove all initiative from the workers.

This dispute which has been simmering since at least 2015 has taken an even a more protracted period than usual to demobilise and has proven problematic for the bureaucracy, largely due to the absence so far of an adequate fig leaf. The coming and going from the Labour Court, the long silences in between visits, sometimes weeks apart and the lack of communication with the workers allows resistance to dissipate.

This demobilisation, as with the INMO strike in February, is the product of the series of deals put in place between the union bureaucracy and the state to control workers' expectations and those deals, sold at the time as 'good', have revealed themselves to be anything but. The latest of those deals signed up to and loyally maintained by the union leaders has been constantly under pressure, and continues to be so, as it approaches the end of its term in 2020.

Union Members Resistance

The discontent which smouldered in the last period of de facto social partnership will only intensify as a new deal is struck against the background of increasing global capitalist instability exacerbated by Brexit. The working class must prepare to fight and opposition to the trade union bureaucracy which will defend their deals with the state to maintain their own privileged position is central to that fight. That bureaucracy will sign up to a new deal equally as bad as 2013 and 2015 which keeps wages on the floor while living costs go through the roof, it's part of the state's strategy for economic recovery and is a strategy that the union bureaucracy agrees with!

At present, union members' spontaneous resistance to the bureaucracy's strategic position is taking the form of individual resignations or is expressing itself in blocs of workers protesting by changing unions. This form of protest is becoming widespread with electricians, ambulance and postal workers in a variety of disputes as they make attempts to escape the grip of one or another union bureaucracy. But all avenues to progress are being closed down to them with members being forced by ICTU to return like serfs to their original union.

Members of the only union outside the ICTU, the IWU are also struggling against their leadership which is drawing closer to Unite and Congress and is in effect seeking to find their place in the ICTU bureaucracy.

Change of form

Workers who are in struggle with the bureaucratic leadership of their unions must achieve an independent organisational form within the unions, all of them, as no ideal union exists which can be escaped to. For the groups of workers who are facing the setback of being returned to their original union body this does not mean the end of struggle,  it just means that the form of that struggle must change.

If the growing numbers of disenchanted workers already in opposition to their various bureaucracies united, formed a democratic rank and file organisation that planned for defensive industrial action and placed demands upon those bureaucracies by laying a programme of action before the broader membership and the general working class things would begin to change.

It may seem a long way off but events are moving fast and if that structure was put in place members could overcome the ephemeral nature of anti-leadership flare ups and begin to self-organise and challenge the control of the self-interested layer of bureaucrats that control and mislead our organisations. Such an organisation has the potential to grow and give voice to the many disenchanted trade unionists in all unions that have repeatedly been let down by ICTU.

As the final repercussions of the Lansdowne road deal are still working through we are trapped in bureaucratically controlled unions that agree with the government’s recovery strategy and we face the prospect of another social partnership type deal that protects capitalism while the workers’ pay.  With the economic conditions set to worsen a rank and file fight back is central to a defence of the whole working class. The union bureaucrats, the government, labour court and WRC cannot be given a free hand.

They can be beaten. Small oppositionist groups of workers exist within the trade unions and there are signs that they have the potential to organise and to fight back. The sooner that unavoidable task is taken up the sooner the corner will be turned.

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