On 24 June over 10,000 workers in the Irish health service took strike action, ignoring Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar’s last minute plea to call it off. This was the first day in a campaign of escalating strike action.
All are members of Siptu, the largest union in Ireland, and are in the support grades - healthcare assistants, kitchen staff, porters, chefs - in public hospitals and healthcare facilities.
The key issue is the refusal of the health bosses to implement an agreed job evaluation scheme for these workers. But the strike has much wider political significance.
It is the third major strike action by health workers, so far, this year, as workers’ anger increases in the face of the ongoing collapse of the public system.
In January and February, 40,000 nurses and midwives struck over their abysmal and deteriorating conditions, as well as poor pay. This resulted in a very poor deal being agreed which did not fundamentally address the causes of the strike.
Paramedics, members of the National Ambulance Service Representative Association (Nasra - a branch of the Psychiatric Nurses Association), with the support and assistance of the Socialist Party, have been engaged for months in industrial action as they fight to gain recognition from the Health Service Executive.
The latter union is one of the few unions who remain outside of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), a body which has acted over the years as a permanent obstacle to workers taking militant action in defence of their interests.
The major problem is that every three years or so a ‘deal’ is struck between the public sector unions, through the ICTU, and the state, to regulate pay and conditions for public servants.
Since 2008 these deals have involved massive concessions by workers in terms of pay cuts, the deterioration of employment conditions and hugely increased workloads due to ongoing staff shortages.
Disgracefully, the deal struck in 2013 included some of the most authoritarian anti-worker legislation ever passed in Ireland.
The latest agreement reached in 2017 - the Public Sector Stability Agreement - is the first to engage in modest pay restoration. In reality, restoring pay back to where it was in 2008!
During the austerity years workers in the health services redoubled their efforts to keep the health system functioning despite massive cuts in state funding. Right wing governments have a clear agenda to underfund the system as a prelude to privatisation.
Although we do not have a national health service in Ireland, workers and the trade union movement nonetheless have a deep commitment to a public health system and the principle of free care.
The capitalist establishment in Ireland, however, are intent on privatising the public system by stealth. Part of this agenda is the systematic degradation of conditions for workers in the system.
There is an ongoing crisis in retention of doctors and consultants, this replicates the crisis in the retention of nursing staff.
Support staff have over the years taken on a huge amount of additional work and the job evaluation process was meant to ensure that this increase in work was matched by increases in pay. The health bosses, backed by a Thatcherite Fine Gael government, have decided to try fight the workers on this.
It is clear what the bosses’ endgame is: to outsource trade union jobs in the support grades and farm out support functions to the private sector. Outsourcing is the key establishment tactic in the privatisation agenda. This cannot be allowed to happen.
Opposing outsourcing in all circumstances must be supported by all trade unions and socialists. We offer full support to the Siptu support workers in their struggle.