Thousands of health service workers are set to go on strike, because of the inaction of the Fine Gael government. Barney Doherty reports on the background to this strike, and why the workers should have your support.
Tomorrow a 24-hour strike, involving up to 10,000 workers, will go ahead from 8.00 am in hospitals across the country. Hospital and healthcare facility workers who are members of SIPTU voted overwhelmingly in March for strike action.
Healthcare assistants, maternity care assistants, and surgical instrument technicians as well as, chefs, porters, cleaners, household and catering service workers will take to the picket line over the dispute.
The dispute has been caused by the HSE’s refusal to implement the suggested changes from a job-evaluation scheme established as part of the Lansdowne Road Agreement in 2015. The review concluded that the workers were entitled to a pay rise after being underpaid for up to a decade.
Initially the HSE had accepted the findings of the job evaluation scheme. However, not only was a pay rise not offered, but more and more responsibilities have been moved to the healthcare workers, including; infection control, cleaning, positioning of patients and a host of other activities. All this extra work, but no extra money to do it. I wonder would Fine Gael ministers accept the same treatment.
Since the recession of 2008 the number of health service workers have been cut. In their place a policy has been effectively enacted of ‘more work from less staff’. Worker’s wages were held down as the state used austerity measures to bail out the banks and developers. All the while the cost of living has sky-rocketed and these workers struggle to afford extortionate rents, mortgage repayments and childcare costs to name a few.
This is clearly an impossible situation for workers and the frustration was reflected in the strike ballot results. The SIPTU health service workers voted by 94 per cent in favour of strike action. The chefs returned a vote of 96 per cent to go on strike.
According to SIPTU the cost of implementation of the agreement would be €16 million, a small portion of the health budget of €18 billion. This would see a pay rise of between €1,600 and €3,200 per year. Hardly exorbitant demands, therefore.
But the government has refused to accept responsibility for this situation. Minister for Health Simon Harris has attacked the strikers calling the move “absolutely extraordinary.” The government claim that their only concern is for the wellbeing of patients—a well-worn line rolled out against the recent Nurses strike.
The reality, however, is that this strike has been caused by the actions of the government. They have consistently overlooked and underpaid the work of support staff. These are the workers who ensure that hospitals and healthcare facilities have remained running as budgets and staff were cut.
Workers have been left with no option but to take industrial action. The strike has already been deferred for two days by the union to allow talks to continue. For their effort the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has only offered €1.2 million of the over €16 million owed to resolve this dispute. It is obvious who is to blame for any disruption to health services.
The Money is There
Fine Gael don’t want to give workers a decent pay rise. But Simon Harris was himself directly responsible for a staggering €1.7 billion overspend on the National Children’s Hospital. The Fine Gael led government will fork out another €3 billion on rural broadband because they are committed to privatisation and creating ‘business opportunities’ for people like Denis O’Brien.
When it comes to business interests, its money no object. But when it comes to paying workers what they are rightfully owed, the government pleads poverty. It is nothing short of a disgrace.
Harris says the strike is extraordinary, but the reality is staff and unions have done everything asked of them. Indeed they worked through the restrictive public service agreements and still they are denied what was promised. That’s why its obvious the government and the HSE are not going to honour the job evaluation scheme without public pressure. That’s why action is needed
Strikes Can Win
The nurses and midwives strike offer important lessons in this regard. As was the case in some hospitals then, the strike should be driven from below by the strike committees that are being formed in many hospitals. Hospital staff should come together for regular mass meetings to discuss how to win.
This should include outreach to other trade unionists and the wider community. They should endeavour to have vibrant picket lines and if possible, call for a demonstration of public support. The workers must be willing to escalate their struggle and the left and trade union movement must be willing to support them. Action can win, if we all stick together, and get behind the workers.
We hear time and again that the days of austerity are gone, that Irish capitalism is on the rise. Now is the time then for workers to get their share of the recovery. The health service workers have already waited too long.