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Nurses and midwives strike

Union leaders betrayal remains invisible for the left

19 February 2019

When the Labour court recommendation was accepted by the nurses union executives the left alliance of Solidarity/People Before Profit put a resolution to the Dail which read in part:

“Whatever the outcome, and the decision is theirs alone, this Dáil should understand that the issues that drove the nurses to take action will not be resolved by the offer.”
At first sight this sounds like an anodyne expression of solidarity. On closer inspection it is carefully crafted hand-washing operation worthy of Pontius Pilate. If the offer does not resolve the issues then socialists should call for it's rejection. This is just one example of a long-standing rule on the reformist left: thou shalt not confront the trade union bureaucracy.

It could be seen most clearly in the ongoing strike by ambulance workers for union recognition. The leftists are on the picket line. They praise SIPTU workers who refuse to cross, but don't call on them to organise against a SIPTU leadership lining up with the bosses.

At the start of the nurse's strike a torrent of abuse fell upon labour councillor Paul Bell for advising SIPTU members to cross pickets. When he turned out to be an official outlining SIPTU policy the critics fell silent.

At the mayor Dublin demonstration in support of the workers People Before Profit argued: “They (ICTU) can no longer sit on the fence.” This is after a decade of ICTU collaboration in the austerity offensive and open scabbing on the nurses. The Socialist Party went one better and managed to avoid any mention of ICTU and the trade union bureaucracy.

Why does this matter? The fact is that arguing the case for socialism is the bread and butter of socialist politics and automatically means friction with a union bureaucracy trying to improve capitalism. Avoiding conflict pushes the leftist groups further towards reform, away from trade union work and towards electoralism.

It is true that the workers themselves, after decades of retreat, are reluctant to consider a revolutionary solution, yet every time a major industrial struggle breaks out the question of the independent organisation of the workers and of a socialist programme is posed again. If the socialist groups do not step forward then we have to look to spontaneous mobilisation by the workers themselves, and everyone knows how difficult it is to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.

However even as the left hold firmly to the union leaderships the chief lesson of the nurses struggle is that the reformist strategy is failing. Ten years of suffering were supposed to save capitalism. Right on time the Irish recovery is proclaimed. The rich get a whole lot richer but workers continue to struggle. A significant fight by nurses is resolved by speedup, by scrabbling for change in the bottom of the drawer and by creative accountancy. Now a new wave of privatisation and selloff, especially in housing, marks a new attack on living standards.

The reformist left have made gains in the Dail and in local government. That gives access to the media and substantial payments from the state. In return they make bizarre claims about the power of Dail resolutions and ignore the control of the councils by unelected city and county managers. A recent example of the reactionary role of council bosses is Dublin council manager Owen Keegan claiming that people are reluctant to leave homeless services because they are now “an attractive option.” Councillors are powerless to act against him.

The electoral strategy will not work. The reformist left are largely invisible in a whole slew of reformers, populists and independents. In any case the strategy of the major unions is to rehabilitate the labour party, disgraced by their role in the last government, and the leftists are too dependent to query this strategy.

Reformism has been tested and has failed in Europe. In the aftermath of the betrayal of Greek workers by Syriza further moves to the right in Portugal and Spain by similar broad left parties has further discredited these currents. Now Europe is a patchwork. Large right wing populist groups have arisen but in response there have  been small regroupments of revolutionaries and significant revolts against ongoing austerity. These trends will reach Ireland also.

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