A Political Prisoner’s Thoughts On The Nurses’ Strike

The 35,000 strong Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) are not a sector of the Irish working class who have a strong tradition of going on strike for improved pay and conditions. In fact the current industrial action represents only the 2nd time in the INMO’s history that they have downed tools. When something as unusual as this happens, it’s time to take notice.

Support for the nurses and midwives is already quite widespread among the general public, not only because they are rightly regarded as incredibly hard working but because their demands are self-evidently justified. The strike is principally about patients being put at risk in the State’s grossly understaffed hospitals – in the most extreme cases with one nurse caring for every 15 patients in a single shift. Why is there such a shortage of nurses? Because their pay is so poor that they can’t be recruited and retained in the required numbers. Indeed, nurses’ inflation-adjusted pay in 2020 – when the current public service pay agreement will expire – will be lower than it was in 2008, while their working hours have only increased over the same period. 

The only way of retaining nurses and easing the crisis in the short term is therefore to increase their pay directly. It is possible that the current Fine Gael administration will make a tactical retreat on this occasion and concede to the strike’s immediate demands; such is the popular support for the nurses. This won’t be the result of any level of human decency on their part, but simply an attempt to defuse what could become something larger.

Why might something larger emerge? Well my suspicion is that the highly unusual strike of nurses and midwives represents only the tip of an iceberg of discontent which now exists throughout the wage-earning class in Ireland, and which is intimately linked not only to very low growth in wages, but also to the housing crisis. In a statement today, Brendan Ogle of the trade union Unite correctly assessed the strike as a symptom of a wider problem: 

“Unless we bring down rampant costs through the provision of public housing and state sponsored childcare, workers in a range of sectors will find themselves forced to take action to secure a decent standard of living, or – in the case of many young people who should be the future of our health service – they are forced to take employment elsewhere to secure their futures. An economy based on property price inflation and relatively poor pay increases will only result in continuing damage to our public health services”

At its roots then, this is a crisis of the proliferation of economic overheads that the working class has to endure as a result of the financialisation of the economy which began in the 1980s. That is to say that the 26 County State would still be a very expensive place to live, even if wages were higher, due in large part to the extra expenses of debt-service which come in the form of mortgage payments, car-loan payments, rent payments, insurance payments and financial payments and fees arising from going into debt for innumerable other reasons, and all of which in turn cause private service-sector providers – such as in the area of childcare – to increase their prices to take account of their own overheads.

While the easy lending practices and expansion of cheap credit of the pre-2008 era served to mask the growing share of productive wealth being extracted from the economy by the rentier class of the real estate, financial and insurance sectors, this illusion is now under threat because banks are more reluctant to give out loans to people in financial difficulty, which would otherwise cover the growing holes in household budgets. Non-performing mortgages and other loans abound as workers find themselves stretched to breaking point during what is supposed to be the high-point of an economic boom.

It is only logical therefore to expect more strikes during 2019 – including from unexpected sectors of the economy which may have no previous record of industrial action. Fine Gael’s attempts in recent days to blame the 2008 recession on borrowing to increase public sector pay is obviously so risible that it really doesn’t require any detailed response. It’s just a barefaced lie, and ignores every mechanism of credit creation which caused the so-called Celtic Tiger and which also ended it. This response does however reveal a very hardline position by the political / economic elite against demands by organised labour, and in my view that can only be explained by a growing anxiety that the period of ‘recovery’, weak as it was, is now coming to an end as the major world economies slide back into stagnation or recession. Now, they feel, is the time to give as little ground as possible.

Socialist Republicans for our part should naturally recognise such strikes for what they truly represent – an attempt by a section of associated working people to take a modestly larger share of the wealth which they labour to produce and are entitled to. In other words, it is a good first step by desperate people who feel that they have absolutely no other choice. The big fight that needs to take place is still ahead, and we must not lose sight of it – to build the All Ireland Republic with an economy that is technically organised to serve the interests of the workers and small farmers of Ireland.

Saoradh condems today’s comments by the Dublin government that it is to seek legal advice in how sanctions, which may include the docking of pay, can be used against nurses. The comments were made by Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney when pressed on whether or not nurses who engaed in the industrial action would face retribution.

On the 18th of December last year, nurses aligned to the INMO voted overwhelmingly to take strike action over a number of different days, starting with todays 24 hour work stoppage, as part of a strategy to secure pay parity with other healthcare professional staff. The 26 county health sector is currently under huge strain for numerous reasons including the inadequate number of nurses employed, people on trolleys, huge waiting lists and emergency services at breaking point.  Saoradh have also been approached by nurses who relayed personal accounts of working double shifts, skipping breaks, working days off and the prioritising patients over their own family time.   

The free states disastrous approach to nursing has led to the migration of no less than 19,386 registered nurses between 2007 and 2017.  A union spokesperson Michael Pidgeon pointed out that 1700 nurses and midwives train in Ireland each year, with 1,343 of those applying to work overseas in 2017. The main reasons highlighted being low pay, long hours and stressfull conditions.  

The effects of this approach on patients has also been detrimental. In 2018 alone, 108,227 patients were left waiting on trolleys in hospitals across the state, the highest number since records began. That figure is alomst double the figure of 55,720 recorded in 2006. According to a report by the NTPF last year,  514,585 people were waiting on an outpaitent appointment while 74,189 people were waiting for an inpaitent or daycare proceedure. This again was the highest number ever recorded.

Also in a day when HSE official’s were unable to confirm that the new National Childrens Hospital won’t exceed  €2bn, over twice the original budget, Saoradh asks the question; how can an extra €1bn be so easily found when it comes to paying private contractors and consultancy firms, yet the free state governement sticks its head in the sand when it comes to paying nurses a wage which reflects the hugley important service provided