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Nurses, health support staff, pilots?

The disappearing strikes

23 September 2019

As the two most recent strikes by Irish health workers recedes into the past it becomes clear that the piecemeal concessions that were made to them through the usual channels fell far short of ending low pay. The exemplerary and spirited stoppage by the nurses and the later strike by the  non-medical health employees were both effective. Had both strikes occurred simultaneously they would have been even more so but the latter group were held back by the union full timers so that their strike wouldn't look too much like a co-ordinated challenge to the employer, by coinciding with the nurses dispute, and their officials disgracefully instructed their members to cross nurses picket lines.

This was because the Siptu leadership relying on their percieved 'relationship' with the HSE bosses adhered loyally to a deal they had made with them. The dispute, when it eventually went ahead was a credit to the discipline and committment of the workers involved but it ended up being the usual short lived affair and thanks to the efforts of the Siptu leadership has taken a similar route through the “demobilisation mill” as the nurses. It has now been kicked into the long grass and has yet to re-emerge from it, but its journey through the WRC and Labour Court was not as seamless as usual.

Both groups of workers' disputes had management's “failure”, better described as a “refusal”,  to come through with promised concessions as part of their grievances;  the nurses sought an end to two tier pay as one of their demands and the hospital workers were promised wage increases based on job re-evaluations to get around the effects of two tier pay.

In the latter case the HSE denied that any agreement to reward job re-evaluations had existed in the first place. In both cases the claims were denied but the pointed inference that the Siptu bureaucracy were dishonest negotiators is a  deviation from the normal conduct of affairs. Paul Bell, the official who had earlier instructed his members to cross the nurses picket lines, described his dealings with the department of expenditure as ; “the worst he has experienced, even at the height of the economic crisis.”

The cozy arrangement between the ICTU and the State employers has become less comfortable, indicating that the mechanisms of conciliation and arbitration that have kept the claims of Irish workers within the narrow confines of the programme for 'recovery' are coming under some pressure.

Flawed Perspective

These mechanisms, the trade union leadership argue, are to provide the kind of stability that will allow a capitalist recovery which in turn will bring growth and higher wages in its wake. The entire trade union bureaucracy seek a reformed capitalism and agree that for those reforms to take place the economic 'recovery' must be in place.  There was a smug assurance within both the trade union bureaucracy and the bourgeoisie that what has turned out to be a 'long depression' following the 2008 collapse would be a temporary phenomenon followed by a strong upswing. They were wrong!

Capitalism is barely recovering, globally economies are scraping the bottom and where there is a technical recovery it is at the expense of the working class and in some cases the product of creative accounting. Ireland had to have a specific method of growth measurement invented, 'Gross National Income', to counter the effects of corporate tax avoidance schemes which had produced a GDP figure of 26%, causing incredulity among the worlds economists.

The perspective of the conservative trade union bureaucracy is deeply flawed and their agreement with the employers' system for conciliation and arbitration is a concrete manifestation of that perspective which is beginning to show signs of stress. This is partly because their vague promises to their members of improved conditions in the future has been going on now for in excess of 10 years. Patience is wearing thin and for organisations whose reason for existing is to gain concessions from capitalism the failure to resolve decade old issues is beginning to lead to their credibility being questioned. Indeed they are acutely aware of this.

It was pressure from the Siptu health workers that forced the bureaucracy to address the issue of job re-evaluation, which has been on the back burner since 2013, rather than wait as the bureaucrats had planned until the negotiations for a renewal of the Public Sector Stability Agreement in 2020. On the other side of the equasion it was the absence of anything ressembling a real recovery which drove the employers to discard the usual niceties and aggressively attack the bureaucrats for daring to bring the subject up.

Although these fall-outs may reflect tensions they should not be taken as a sign that the bureaucracy will alter their strategy. They will not, as this episode has also shown. Their response to the HSC management's direct denial that they had offered concessions to the health workers in the negotiations at the WRC was some bitter complaints followed by a demobilisation of the strike and a return to business as usual.

There is nothing to suggest that this will change as the employers go on the offensive as they have done at Ryanair for example by short circuiting the industrial relations process and gaining an injunction against Forsa! In this case the strike was simply disallowed and despite the usual theatrics the strike has dissappeared without a trace! When the employers launch such an attack the response of the bureaucracy is to allow a token strike and then to focus on a return to the mediation system that has produced so little for the workers even during times of comparitive plenty. But in the case of the pilots even a one day strike is exceptionally effective and couldn't be allowed. So what now?

A new downturn

The banking collapse has taken its toll and  for the majority of workers, especially in the public sector, the never to be recovered sacrifices they have already made have proven to be insufficient. Capitalism has not recovered and is now teetering on the brink of a further collapse and this global systemic failure is exacerbated by the conjunctoral impact of a potential British exit from the EU.  This can only mean that with such a leadership the working class will be in no position to oppose the price of that Brexit which, like the bill for the banking collapse, will inevitably be levied upon workers by the Irish bourgeoisie to which the trade union leadership are tied hand and foot.

As the crisis approaches its next phase we already know that ICTU believe that in order to have a healthy trade union movement you must have a healthy capitalism, so what happens when ICTU decides that capitalism is having another bout of acute illness? What happens to their role in gaining concessions from capital? We already know from the banking collapse, they agree to austerity! With the coming recession they will agree to more austerity! They will continue to hold on to the coat tails of the Irish bourgeoisie in the hope they will act as arbiters between them and international capital and they in turn will police their membership's expectations as they did the health workers, nurses, teachers, bus and rail workers etc.

We need trade unions that are independent of the needs of capital and are based solely on the needs of the working class not some hoped for capitalist recovery. To achieve that we need to dispense with the the current leadership's strategy and the current leadership with it!

There is a common misconception among many on the left that we do not have to confront the trade union bureaucracy and that all we have to do is 'wait' for conditions to worsen and the workers will come to a revolutionary conclusion, in most cases it is further extrapolated that the workers will then join 'our' organisation. This objectivism is the crudist form of materialism and has nothing in common with Marxism. We have seen what 'waiting' has gained us! We need to fight openly against the existing mis-leadership of the working class and call it out. March beside them when they decide to fight, which in recent years is when exactly? And openly and vigourously oppose them when they demobilise, lie and cajole workers in to bad deal after bad deal the sum total of which works out as a constant submission to the needs of capital.

If that is not changed by thinking class conscious workers then the working class will continue its slide towards whatever level of penury capitalism deems necessary.

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