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The nurses' dispute. Prisoners of the PSSA!

2 April 2019

The high spirits of the nurses national protest in February seem very distant at this point. The voices of discontent that filled the streets of Dublin with optimistic chants are now a faded echo. How did this publically expressed determination and self confidence apparently dissipate so thoroughly?

Without going in to the minutiae of the dealings within the Labour Court, (LC) or of the Workplace Relations Commission, (WRC) it is suffice to say that any initiative has firmly been removed from the workers in the workplace and the streets and diverted into the boardrooms of the “conciliation” machinery. The nurses are now working normally while the full time officials that represent them are flitting unproductively between the LC the WRC and the increasingly confident Health Service Executive (HSE) management.

The status quo has been maintained and the Nurses fightback controlled. That is what the conciliation and arbitration system associated with the Public Sector Stability Agreement (PSSA) is designed to achieve. It is becoming increasingly obvious through the conduct of repeated strikes that this agreement, between ICTU and the Irish State, is designed to make the working class pay for the economic crisis by keeping them within the confines of the so called 'recovery' programme, a long standing policy of the ICTU.

Within this process the State and the HSE management are firmly within their comfort zone. They are confident in the ability of the major unions' leaderships, Siptu in particular, to police that agreement, up to and including a willingness to scab on disputes, and they understand the significance of the INMO leadership's refusal to step outside the confines of the PSSA, despite coming under acute pressure from their membership.

Employer's Assault, No Surprise!

An attack by another union on striking workers such as Siptu's call on their members to cross the picket line is a boon to any employer, but when they are then also a major factor in subsequent negotiations to settle that dispute it is a particularly handy tool for the bosses to possess.

Indeed it is Siptu who are widely quoted in relation to the latest round of talks. Without a hint of irony they accuse the management of a “smash and grab” approach in its outright attacks in the proposed new contract.

Should it be a surprise to us that the employers were confident enough to conduct such an assault when the Siptu leadership had so blatantly undermined the strike itself?  Siptu's divisional organiser Paul Bell bleated that the demands made by the employer were “too ambitious” and went beyond the terms of the PSSA.

Of course the management know what they are doing when they make demands for the new contract which goes far beyond those terms. It has the object of 'bending the stick too far' as either a preliminary to returning to a more 'sensible' position as a fig leaf to the bureaucracy's negotiators, or if it is successful, of making the deal even more draconian. They cannot lose. By exceeding the confines of a deal that is already prohibitive for the nurses they intend to exhaust the energy of the dispute by forcing it to struggle to return to the starting point. The tactic is as old as the hills.

The Siptu negotiator knows this, he has admitted that management were attempting to  “frustrate the negotiations”  but undoubtedly he will deny any culpability in creating the conditions for this confident tactical counterattack.

But the ghost of the actual strike still haunts them. The State's refusal to give anything substantive in the negotiations has led to the postponement of the latest meeting while INMO officials consider the latest unnecessarily complicated offer which reportedly gives with one hand and takes away with the other and attempts to conceal this under reams of jargon.

The Contradictions of the So Called 'Recovery'

This is the outworkings of the contradictions inherent in Irish capitalism's strategy for the so called 'recovery'. Wages are restrained while everything is done to aid the Banks, building barons and vulture funds who then capitalise on soaring rents and property prices.

As a result Irish capitalism faces real difficulties in attracting and retaining labour. Reflecting these contradictions the Nurses point to the opportunities for employment abroad and understandably talk of taking their labour elsewhere and there is every sign that this will happen but emigration provides a solution for only a relatively small number of individuals. Nevertheless, it presents a problem for the State.

They are seeking to get around it by concession bargaining, ultimately hoping that by making minor concessions to key groups paid for by productivity measures they can retain key staff.

In other words staying within the terms of the PSSA can only mean a redistribution of what amounts to 'very little' for the nurses and most damagingly to the continuation of two tier pay. This cynical tactic arrived at with the connivance of the leadership of the Irish trade union bureaucracy has meant that one group of workers, the longest serving, are set against the newer generation within the same union.

Fight Back!

What would be a serious problem for the State would be a general strike across the public sector. The PSSA holds down the wages of all public sector workers and the resistance among the nurses has began to present a real challenge to the State and to the union bureaucracy.

This strike was as much to protect the public health service as it was to increase wages and that has the sympathy of users and patients who have shown their willingness to mobilise. The solidarity from Irish nurses abroad also has the potential to develop into a systematic campaign, especially if linked to other struggles such as the Nurses dispute in New York.

Most importantly, the Siptu leadership's hand has been forced and their strike breaking actions have  been exposed by their call on members to cross picket lines! A desperate measure by a bureaucracy desperate to contain resistance. They and the entire trade union leadership must be stopped from acting as the enforcers of this rotten deal. The PSSA is due to be renegotiated in 2020, the campaign against it can start now.

 The discontent and anger that has driven this strike has emanated from the nurses themselves and their strike committees. They meet again on Thursday April 4th  to consider the latest Labour Court recommendations which are to be announced “mid week”, only a day earlier and the bureaucrats are pushing hard to settle the dispute with next to nothing achieved.

That would be a disaster, not just for the nurses but for the broader working class. The alternative to caving in with nothing is to fight back and that means a return to industrial action on the basis of the health workers' needs and original demands;  An end to two tier pay, a real pay increase and a decent health service for all!

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