We are posting two articles from the Socialist Democracy (Ireland) blog addressing the nurses’ struggle for improved pay and a better health service in Ireland. The second goes into the underlying problems faced when unions embrace a partnerships with the state and employers in a time of economic crisis.
1.SQUARING THE CIRCLE
Government and union bureaucracy put nurses back in their box
In antiquity Greek mathematicians came up with an insoluble problem called “squaring the circle”. The term entered the English language as a metaphor for an impossible task.
Yet this is the task that INMO General Secretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha, alongside the executives of the nurses and midwives union and the psychiatric nurses union, with the support of ICTU, set out to achieve.
She was to win nurse’s demands on pay, retention of members in the health service and for equality with other public sector graduate pay scales. Nurses saw the demands as not only benefiting themselves, but as relieving pressure on a collapsing health service.
Yet she was to do all this within the context of the Public Sector Stability Agreement – specifically designed by government and union bureaucracy to enforce pay restraint and to delay or prevent the restoration of pay and conditions in place before the 2008 credit crunch.
It’s hardly surprising if the recommendations of the Labour Court mean nurses remain trapped in a box, with none of the issues resolved.
In order to understand the labour court recommendation we have to look back at the report of the Public Sector Pay Commission, itself a coalition of the union bureaucracy and the government, published last September. It rejected outright the case for an overall pay increase to ensure retention of nurses, accepted that there might be shortages in specific areas and set aside €20 million in allowances for this, going on to suggest that changes in pay rates could be won by nurses taking on extra duties.The chair of the pay commission, former bureaucrat Kevin Duffy, acted as mediator in negotiating defeat following the last major nurses strike of 1999.
Compare the sum of €20 million offered by the pay commission with estimates of €15 million this year and €30 million next year in the Labour Court decision – an offer offset by clawing back of €30 million set aside for amelioration of two tier pay for public sector entrants. Contrast this with the €300 million a year required to provide the generalised increase demanded by the nurses and the limits of the union leadership’s achievements become clear. The fact that many payments are in the form of allowances means there is no increase in employer pension guarantees. Half of the nursing workforce will see no significant increase in pay.
The Labour Court echoes the Pay Commission suggestion in proposals for a new pay grade that will apply to senior nurses who sign a new contract and agree to even more work so that they can pay for their own wage increase. The usual review is included, promising all sorts of goodies in the future in exchange for surrender now.
The proposals focus on two groups. Young nurses will fast-tracked to the next increment, skipping increment 2, a manoeuvre similar to the bringing forward of existing payments in the last public sector deal so that money in the hand will distract from the weakness of the overall proposals. The other group is senior nurses at the top of the pay scale who will now be offered movement to a new scale. This will be cost neutral in that savings will be made by withdrawing agency staff and having nurses work harder. The Labour Court will review implementation and scrap the deal if savings are not made.
The nurses saw their action as benefiting patients by increasing resources. The deal says that improvements will come from nurses undertaking more work. A lot of the new work will be in the community and will be a target for the outsourcing and privatisation that has bled the health service dry, as was the case in the children’s hospital scam.
The PSSA mechanism has emerged victorious. It has preserved the government’s budget and fiscal rectitude by capping the money available for nurses pay and for a public health service. The Labour Court, aided by ICTU and the leaders of the major unions, alongside the executives of the nurses and midwives and the psychiatric nurses unions, have been so successful that the same model is now offered to teachers and other public sector unions. The effect would be to hold down for another year or two the cost of public sector pay and of public services generally.
There is however another side to the story. The pressure from below is growing constantly. After a decade of austerity the workers were told that the Irish economy had recovered. The wealthy have never had it so good. Yet full pay and pensions keep receding into the far future while at the same time speculators push up mortgages and rents.
The result is that the various public pay agreements are subject to periodic crises. The garda drove a coach and horses through pay restraint. Open scabbing and the use of anti-strike laws were needed to crush ASTI action to achieve equal pay for younger teachers. Payments in the last deal were brought forward to head off revolt with the result that no money is left to make any significant further payments,
So what the nurses deal does is push the Public Sector Stability Agreement to its absolute limit. Any sustained revolt by workers will see the whole edifice crashing down.
There are obstacles to such a revolt. The saga of Dublin Bus tells us that when workers reject bad agreements they are balloted again and again until they get the vote right. This is likely to happen to nurses if they reject the deal. Threats of the use of emergency legislation to dock pay if the deal is refused are already being made.
A revolt needs a different political consciousness. For the first time ever the scabbing of the union leaders was in plain sight. SIPTU, FORSA and INTO leaders resolutely opposed solidarity and demanded that the settlement stay inside the borders of the PSSA.
When ASTI fought for equal pay for equal work they were handcuffed to INTO and TUI and forced to submit. Today Patricia King of SIPTU and ICTU went into the talks with the nurses to help draft the terms of retreat. Ironically, as King posed as the friend of the nurses, ambulance workers, members of the psychiatric nurses union, were on strike, denied union recognition by an alliance of SIPTU and Health Service employers.
If we are to fight this constant scabbing we need to organise in a new way. local committees need to link across hospitals, across unions and within communities so that they can organise independently of the bureaucracies.
The circle can’t be squared. To have decent pay and conditions we must break the Public Sector Stability Agreement. Union leaders and government are united in arguing that only constant payment to the banks and bondholders, constant sacrifice by the workers, can save Ireland. We can see that only the bosses and the landlords benefit. It is time we organised on our own behalf, putting the interests of the Irish working class ahead of the interests of imperialism.
This was first posted at:-
2. PARTNERSHIP AND PAY RESTRAINT
The economic foundations of the nurses’ pay deal
Mechanisms of social partnership have been in place for over 30 years, regulating the pay and conditions of public sector workers and of the workforce as a whole. In this environment the nature of Irish trade unionism has changed significantly. Many bureaucrats have never seen a strike and on the rare occasions that strikes take place they are followed almost instantly by a deal.
However the most extensive changes occur in the committees and boards jointly staffed by bosses and bureaucrats; the PSSA, the public sector pay review committee, the implementation committee, the workplace relations committee, the labour court and so on.
There is a change in vocabulary: equity and social justice are not discussed. The new agenda involves recruitment, retention and parity of different pay grades. The discussion is purely technical – can pay and conditions be kept within budget without leading to a flight of key workers?
The temptation is to denounce the collaboration of the union bosses and the sellout of the workers. We should avoid this sort of moralism and instead try to understand why the bureaucrats do what they do and the consequences of their current strategy.
It’s useful to say exactly what trade unions are as opposed to what we wish them to be. They are not forerunners of revolution, rather they are institutions within capitalism trying to adjust the price of labour power in favour of workers both for individual trades and for the class as a whole. When the workers are advancing they are active in the unions and winning reforms in society. In retreat the unions become more heavily bureaucratised and oversee retreats where workers conditions worsen.
In many advanced capitalist societies in times of boom the unions built social democratic parties and won reform. The time of capitalist boom is long gone. Social Democracy is in decay. The unions go along with austerity in the hope that capitalism will recover and the good times will come again. This process is particularly acute in Ireland, where the decades of formal partnership with bosses and government and subordination to imperialist domination of the country have locked the unions with capital in endless offensives on the workers.
The processes faces major contradictions that are becoming more acute.
The first is the limitations of recovery in Ireland. It is hard to be exact about the Irish economy. We have been through the period of “leprechaun economics” when the offshoring of a few U.S. firms appeared to boost the growth rate to over 26%. This weird figure reflected the dominance of transnational capital over the native economy – a dominance so great that a new economic measure, GNI*, has had to be invented to arrive at any rough approximation of economic activity. Increasingly the influx of capital is purely financial as Ireland’s role as a tax haven begins to dominate.
When some transnational activity is stripped away Ireland’s position is dire. A claimed income of €330 billion in 2018 is reduced to €190 billion under GNI*. national assets minus outgoings gives a figure of minus €438 billions. The debt per person is calculated at €105,000, the highest in Europe. The banks are still not secure despite an €80 billion subsidy and are busy shedding under-performing mortgages into the hands of vulture capitalism. Debt repayment is fueled by a firesale of public property through the NAMA agency and today by the forced selloff of public land.
However the real problem lies with the budget. The 2018 tax income was €43.4 billion. Debt repayment stood at €20.5 billion, almost 50% of income. These are the figures that, alongside ECB restraints, create a constant pressure on public sector pay and services. Fully funded public services would involve the Irish government defying the European Central Bank and international financial institutions.
Just how likely is this revolt by Irish Capital?
In the three decades before 2016 the proportion of wealth held by the top 10% of the population rose from 42% to 54%. At the same time the share of wealth held by the bottom 50% of the population had fallen from 12% to 5%. The concentration of wealth at the top has continued unabated.
The explanation for this process is self-evident. Rather than being victims of imperialist rapacity alongside Irish workers, Irish capitalism acts as local agent for the banks and bondholders, extracting wealth from the population. A good example of this process can be seen in the current housing crisis. The law has been changed to allow local and transnational capital to come together to form REITS (Real Estate Investment trusts) – financial instruments for the super-exploitation of mortgage and rental income.
The process of wealth extraction in Ireland has been fantastically successful. The unit cost of labour is the lowest in the Eurozone and labour productivity is the highest. Since the credit crunch Irish capital has squeezed blood from the stone. The nurse’s strike shows we are reaching a limit – very little blood remains. Wages and services are constricted while open season in housing profiteering drives rents and mortgages up and up.
It is in this environment that we have to view discussions between bosses and union bureaucrats in the PSSA, bearing in mind that public sector pay, once the lower limit on a living wage, is now seen as an anchor holding down overall pay rates. We are now at a point where keeping skilled workers and hiring new ones in both the public and private sector is a mayor problem as wage rates are outstripped by living costs. This is so acute that inability to import skilled workers in the construction industry is a serious bottleneck to further expansion. The same process in the health service means that it is unlikely that the nurses pay deal will be enough to retain nurses – the issue of the decay of the health service is not addressed.
Ireland is an extreme example example of a long attempt at capitalist recovery. That experiment is coming to an end. Brexit will run alongside economic weakness in Europe and across the world.
Where will Ireland stand? Irish capitalism has exhausted austerity. Resources have been sold off. Services are lined up for privatisation.
What reserves has Ireland now? Will workers remain within the narrow confines of a failed social partnership? Will they continue to stand behind a failed trade union leadership?
The crisis is not just economic. It is political. Long ago the trade unions found that strike action is severely constrained. The individual employer is joined by employers as a class and the armed bodies of the state line up against the workers. In response the unions helped found parliamentary parties to gain governmental power and win reforms. Because of the division of the country and the weakness of the working class Irish labour never filled that role. The unions collaborated in a nationalist alliance with Fianna Fail, the precursor of later social partnerships. Labour served as a conduit in government when the far right Fine Gael formed coalition governments.
This was the case in the most recent coalition government, but the level of austerity was so great that labour, instead of acting as a cushion for the working class, became a battering ram against them and demanded criminal charges against protesters. As a result the party was decimated in the elections.
The union leaderships are left without any political clothes. The major unions, led by SIPTU, have a project of reviving labour. The left unions looked towards a ”broad left” party based around Sinn Fein. This project collapsed, but Sinn Fein are now orienting towards the left bureaucracy with TUNUI (Trade Unionists for a New and United Ireland) . The various electoral projects look towards a populist rights based approach – a “new republic” or an ” Irish commonwealth”. The unstated assumption is that wealth taxes can reverse austerity without a need to repudiate the sovereign debt or confront the ECB and the vulture funds.
And this is the crisis for the working class. The old political structures have failed and there is an urgent need for a party that represents their needs. However that party should be founded on the need for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism rather than its repair. In addition we should recognise that solutions will not be found within the narrow confines of a partitioned Ireland or under the thumb of imperialist economic control. A new workers party would of necessity reach out to the oppressed workers of Europe and to the oppressed across the globe.
This was first posted at:-
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