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The nurses and midwives strike

A blinkered solidarity

22 January 2019

The announcement of a national nurses and midwives strike on 30th January and five further days of action in February has seen a wave of solidarity from activists and the socialist groups.

The strikers from the main  nurses union, the INMO, and from the psychiatric nurses union, the PNA,  have a strong case based not only on pay, but on the disintegration of the health service and the way in which  patients services have been overwhelmed by the collapsing structures.

However, the wave of solidarity expresses a selective blindness that presents a barrier to success for the action.

The problem can be best understood in the criticism of Paul Bell, a Labour councillor and member of the largest public sector union, SIPTU, who has advised his members that if they do not pass pickets set up by the nurses unions they will not be protected by the union.

The remarks led to a storm of criticism. However the  majority of that criticism has centred on Bell as an individual and on his role as a Labour party councillor. Yet Bellís advice has been repeated in a formal statement from the SIPTU leadership, supported by the right-wing union Forsa,  and many of the critics have now become silent.

It's not as if this were an unexpected action by a rogue union. Industrial correspondents for RTE and other news services report daily that the other public sector unions have warned the government that any concessions to the nurses will be followed by instant demands on their part for further increases for their members. It is quite clear that this is not an act of solidarity and a promise to launch a broad campaign of pay restoration for the public sector, but is in fact a reminder that they have agreed a deal, the Public Service Stability Agreement (PSSA), that holds down pay and that  the public sector unions are offering  scabbing support to the government in facing down the nurses. In fact  this is the main defence of the government - that the agreement would be breached and that any concession to the nurses would be unaffordable because they would have to be extended to other public sector workers.

The material base of collaboration between unions and bosses was shown in a preliminary strike by PNA members in the ambulance service demanding union recognition. SIPTU demand sole negotiating rights under the Bridlington Accord, which prevents workers transferring to more active unions. The employers support them in this, refusing recognition to the PNA ambulance staff and refusing to make a transfer of PNA dues from pay slips.

The fear of a breach in the pay agreement is very real. The government headed off a revolt when they substantially increased police pay by bringing forward a limited public sector pay restoration. That has largely been wiped out by the housing crisis and rent inflation, that now acts as a real barrier in both private and public employment to replacing Irish workers leaving the country with incoming migrant labour who cannot afford the costs of accommodation. Many workers are facing a dilemma, with housing payments vying with food and transport costs. The immediate solution from their perspective is increased pay.
The PSSA does not float in a vacuum. It is supported by  Public Service Pay Commission report which denies that there is any need for  a generalized pay increase for nurses and offers wriggle room in the form of extra allowances where there are specific gaps in staffing. The commission is made up of a 50/50 split between bosses and retired union bureaucrats and there's not slightest hint of any battle between the two sides. On the contrary, they are united in holding the ground on government pay restraint.

The nurses have also approached the public oversight committee, The oversight body is made up of representatives of public service management and of the public service committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.  It monitors the partnership deal between public service unions and the government which agrees that the workers should bear the cost of the  revival in the economy. The oversight committee found that there is no possibility of movement, hardly surprising as they operate under the direction of  the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, which oversees public sector pay and whose authorisation would be required to allocate a pay rise.

It should also not be forgotten that the current pay stability agreement, as with earlier agreements, contains punitive sanctions which can cut pay and promotion for striking workers if they do not concede.

So the nurses strike is about to begin. Other health and public sector unions will scab on the dispute Even the leadership of the INMO are advising members not to call on other union members to respect the picket.

 We have been here before. ASTI, the teachers union, took industrial action to try and end the system where new teachers were paid lower rates than existing teachers.  They were scabbed on by the other public sector unions and the strike failed.

In  a now familiar pattern the reformist socialist groups have retreated into the pantomime in the Dail, demanding an independent review of nurses pay. What does this mean? Does it mean that the Public Service Pay Commission, staffed by former union bureaucrats,  is not independent? Does it mean that the Public Oversight Committee, jointly run with ICTU, is not independent?  What carefully crafted resolution will persuade government and union leaders to abandon their partnership?

Solidarity should not reduce itself to smiley faces and emoji decorations on social media  or on a token presence on the picket lines. There should be proposals for victory for the workers. These involve calls for a general public sector strike, rejection of the national pay agreement, and the end of the resource famine in public services. This means a determined fight against the collaboration between union leadership, bosses, and government that enables the ongoing austerity facing Irish workers. The role of socialists in this dispute is not to vacuously 'demand' an independent review, by who? Where is the middle ground between the bosses and the workers that they seek? Socialists must call for adherence to the first rule of trade unionism; Solidarity! Never cross a picket line!

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