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The health workers strike, ICTU and Stormont

10 December 2019

Around 25,000 health care workers including nurses, social care staff and support services are taking industrial action to defend a health service which is widely accepted to be on the verge of collapse and to demand an increase in the currently 'unsafe' levels of staffing, investment and a long overdue pay increase for hard pushed health workers. To give a taste of the degree of under-investment in local health care, over 94,000 people are waiting more than a year for a specialist's appointment compared to 3,364 in England with a population around 28 times greater.

Similarly to the emigration of labour from the HSE service in the South there are up to 1800 positions left unfilled in the NHS as qualified people opt for work in better paid health services abroad. Again, the destruction of the health service is a cash cow for private capital, nurses earning between £11.00 and £16. 00 ph are being increasingly replaced by agency nurses who sacrifice terms and conditions and a secure contract to earn up to £60.00 ph, with a huge premium being paid to the agency of course. Millions of pounds has been quietly placed in employment agencies owners' pockets while health care for those that can't afford private health schemes is being gradually dismantled.

The strike campaign has been driven by a surge in frustration among rank and file union members who see the impact of this on patients, and on themselves as they try to cope, and at the lack of action to confront this longstanding attack on public health provision. The attacks on the nursing profession go back almost a decade, beginning with a reduction in nursing places and bursaries and continuing with a pay freeze against a background of an increasing funding shortfall. The dispute is planned to run from 25 November until December 18th with the second phase running through until March 2020 including, for the first time in their 103 year history, a strike by RCN nurses on December 18th.

As we saw with the health strikes in the South, public support is very strong and once again we see textbook solidarity among the workforce. Alongside the strike an effective work to rule is in place which includes an overtime ban, a refusal to work unpaid hours or carry out unpaid tasks, something that is widely exploited by health service management, and a strict limitation on completing paperwork to essential “individual patient records”.

At the Antrim Area Hospital, Belfast City Hospital and the Ulster Hospital workers have already taken action and were joined on the picket line by transport drivers inspiring a Unison branch chair to describe the strike's solidarity and public support as “phenomenal” and, whether consciously or not, to faintly echo Larkin's words saying that "not a wheel will turn in the Northern Trust area".(1) As it presently stands the union leaders have rejected an offer of 2.1% and claim they will insist on regaining the parity with health workers in Britain that was removed by DUP minister Jim Wells in 2015.

Stormont saves the day?

While the British State is committed to the full across the board commodification of health provision, including selling it off to US corporations, the British administration's current appointee to the NIO, Julian Smith, is using the withholding of resources, ostensibly due to the absence of a Stormont minister, as a lever which the British hope will rebuild their ramshackle demi-government on the hill. He is joined by the usual reactionary chorus.

The question for health workers is; would Stormont's resurrection be likely, beyond the release of withheld funding by Whitehall, to prevent the general destruction of their pay, conditions and the service they work in when five Stormont ministers from the DUP, UUP and Sinn Fein have been directly responsible for administering the cuts that has brought them to this point? Michael McGimpsey, Edwin Poots, Jim Wells, Simon Hamilton and Michelle O'Neill!  The trade union leadership insist that it would, but they have consistently refused to confront these attacks with a real campaign of industrial action. They relied instead on almost monthly lobbying expeditions to Stormont to plead for concessions and to present to their members some barely credible semblance of opposition.

The Facade falls

It was the difficulty in administering Westminster's cuts and welfare reform that to a large extent caused the collapse of the Stormont House deal in 2014 which NIC-ICTU had promised to fight tooth and nail. At the biennial conference in Ennis Peter Bunting of the northern committee of ICTU reported that; “Almost every public sector union has a mandate for some form of industrial action, up to and including strike action. We remain resolutely opposed to the economic and social cost of the Stormont House Agreement, and will continue to oppose it regardless of fantasy budgets or back-room deals at Stormont.”

Given that Jim Wells, the DUP minister, had just refused to increase nurses pay in line with nurses in Britain, a central issue in the current dispute, and with all unions having a mandate for action, it would then have been a good time to resist! Despite the fine words nothing happened.  The politically corrupt Fresh Start deal which followed a year later was a moment of truth for NICICTU's strategy of lobbying the local assembly when it became undeniably clear that Stormont was going to comply with Whitehall's fiscal parameters, in whatever roundabout way was necessary. Fresh Start's objective was; “to secure the full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement” and the participants, precisely in the back rooms of Stormont, found a way to cook the books to comply with the austerity agenda with some of the heavy lifting “repatriated” to Westminster.

A resort to arms?

This failure of diplomacy should have meant a resort to arms but lobbying was not to be replaced by the exercise of the “mandate” for industrial action boasted about at conference. Instead the health workers were going to have to continue to suffer the cuts to their pay imposed by Stormont. No fightback was countenanced by the union full time bureaucrats and their obvious public reversal was so shocking that it led to demands from both Strabane and Mid Ulster Trades Councils that Peter Bunting resign.

The reason given by the bureaucrats for their refusal to fight was almost comically apocalyptic; “We looked into an abyss and we withdrew from the abyss because the inevitability of having a major oppositional campaign against our own politicians was catastrophic in the long term for us.” This touching attachment of the union bureaucrats to “our own” politicians flew in the face of the evidence. The Stormont government had already made cuts that NIC-ICTU argued Stormont could protect them from! Cuts which continued to be implemented and maintained through a series of Ministers, including the “friendly” ones like Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill, until the entire house of cards collapsed in ignominy under the weight of its own sectarianism and corruption.

A return to the “abyss”?

The health services North and South are facing the same demise as state investment shrinks and the vultures of the giant global health providers circle and begin to feast. Health workers also face the same misleadership by a trade union bureaucracy that continues to back away from any confrontation with the state's policy of seeking to squeeze every gram of profit from public health services at the expense of health workers and patients.

The health workers strike exhibits all that is best in workers solidarity on the picket line and looks like it has the capacity to expand but the strikers must beware the professional compromisers of the union bureaucracy who will stand them down on the flimsiest of excuses as public healthcare provision continues to be eroded, while at the same time calling for a return to work in Stormont by “our politicians” as a solution. Yes... The ones from Peter Bunting's “abyss” who cut the wages in the first place.


(1) Larkin asserted in a speech during the Belfast Dock strike of 1907 that “neither wheel nor hand would turn”.

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