By JOHN McANULTY
DUBLIN-Thousands of Irish nurses took to the streets here on Oct. 21 in one of the most significant industrial disputes for many years.
On one side are the fat cats of the “Celtic tiger,” besmirched by scandal which involves the entire economic and political establishment. The former premier, Charlie Haughey, stands accused of wholesale robbery of the public purse. The Ansbacher scandal involves offshore accounts that connect much of Irish banking in a criminal conspiracy.
Facing them stand the Irish people, representing a public sector workforce subject to years of wage austerity, suffering massive cutbacks, and facing a process of privatization, and hospital closures. The nurses have overwhelming public support.
The result should be open and shut. There is, however, another element to the equation that seems to go almost unnoticed-the Irish trade-union leadership.
The truth is that the years of austerity were the result of a series of national understandings between the government, business, and the trade unions. The trade-union leadership supported and enforced the austerity.
The “partnership” agreements covered all sectors of the Irish workforce, but in practice applied most firmly to public sector workers. A major element of all the agreements was restrictions on pay, higher productivity, and lay-offs. All the agreements promised falsely to improve public services and change the tax laws (workers face massive tax bills while Irish capitalists and multinational firms refuse to pay any but the most minimal rates of tax).
The Irish trade-union movement is heavily bureaucratized and rests on a working class split by partition. There is little history of broad movements across the unions at the shop stewards’ level. Even when workers see clearly that the trade-union leadership are selling them out they lack the broad organization necessary for effective resistance.
Most workers bought the argument that austerity now would bring prosperity later. But today, “later” has arrived, and the prosperity of the Irish bourgeoisie is all too evident. It’s against this background that a ballot of the nurses led to a rejection of the Labour Court enforcement of a 2 percent wage settlement.
The government has been standing by the Labour Court ruling. But in the run-up to the strike, Health Minister Barry Cowan said, “If the Nursing Alliance union re-commit themselves to social partnership there’s a whole range of possibilities open to them to pursue their agenda.” Premier Bertie Ahern said, “We have proposals to move this on, but that can only be with collective agreement.”
Almost immediately, Des Geraghty, vice president of SIPTU, the civil service union, was in contact with the government to begin a negotiation process which, because it was designed to stay within the partnership agreement, could not meet the nurses’ demands.
On Oct. 20, the Irish council of Trade Unions (ICTU) leadership met and informed the nurses’ leadership that they had their support only if they were prepared to stay within the framework of the partnership. As the nurses’ leaders entered talks with the government, they issued a statement which significantly did not include any mention of increments, the central demand of nurses looking a decent wage.
The stage is set for minor concessions by the government, leaving room for the trade-union leadership to call off the strike action. Yet even if this happens, the nurses’ strike will have been significant.
Irish workers see massive private wealth and widespread public corruption. They are now looking for their share of the cake, while government and big business know that the recipe for the cake is starvation wages for the working class.
The chief weakness among the working class as a whole is blindness to the activities of the trade-union leaders, a blindness shared by the majority of the Irish left. But that blindness won’t last. The long sleep of the Irish working class is coming to an end.
Update: Leadership calls it off
As we go to press, on Oct. 28, the trade-union leadership has called off the strike after agreeing to a document that marked essentially no significant movement by the government.
The overall wage increase remains fixed at 2 percent. A clumsy attempt has been made to divide the nurses with the announcement of new promotion posts for a minority of nurses. All other issues are referred to a new partnership agreement. The deal is so rotten that several pickets were calling for rejection even before it was issued.
John McAnulty is a member of Socialist Democracy Ireland.