From top:Minister for Health Simon Harris on RTÈ 1’s Prime Time last week Eva O Callaghan, a student nurse from the Mater hospital and a member of the INMO (Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation) at the trade union’s march in Dublin city centre last Saturday; Bryan Wall
Whenever people decide that enough is enough, and that their mistreatment at the hands of governments or corporations has become too much to endure, nothing is certain. This is because what was expected can no longer be taken for granted.
The rules that people have abided by up until this point are no longer of any use. Low pay, poor conditions, and increasing amounts of overtime create a tinder box of revolutionary struggle just waiting to exploded.
Our own experience in Ireland in this regard has been somewhat muted for the majority of the state’s existence. Over the last 10 years, however, with the collapse of the social contract — which was tenuous at best — people are no longer willing to stay within the confined lanes of waiting for their salvation at the ballot box.
Unions and mass organising have become more and more important to the lives of many people. They offer a way of resisting that is more than merely voting for the opposite party in an election.
Unions especially are anathema to the powerful in society, which is why they had to be either captured by power or crushed by it. When unions do actually stand up for themselves and their members, the elite are initially flabbergasted but quickly go on the offensive.
Take the recent episode of [RTE 1’s] Prime Time which dealt with the nurse and midwife strike and the children’s hospital construction scandal. Within seconds — literally, seconds — the underlying message was made clear for everyone watching.
David McCullagh, after showing a clip of a nurse on the picket line, said:
“But what are the risks to patients posed by next week’s planned three-day strike?”
The following interview with Simon Harris was more akin to an annoying aunt nagging you for more information at Christmas than a journalist confronting a health minister over his failures and the failures of his department.
In the case of the nurses and midwives, Mr Harris was keen to reiterate the point so conveniently mentioned in the major papers last week.
He said to Miriam O’Callaghan any agreement made with the striking nurses and midwives has to be made “in the confines of the [public sector] agreement”. Otherwise “you’ll have me sitting in this seat next week asking me about a different group.”
And this is the real threat posed by the nurses and midwives. Not their calls for better pay and conditions but the threat of a leading by successful example. In any society run along capitalist lines the workers have to be pliant, underpaid, and expendable. Nothing can be allowed to threaten this.
Hence we have in the media and on Prime Time the repeating of the threat posed to the welfare of patients by those on strike. Pit worker against worker. It is a textbook example of class warfare that could have been lifted out of any 19th-century economics textbook.
One GP, Doireann O’Leary, who is sympathetic with the nurses’ and midwives’ strike told Pat Kenny that “the government’s inaction on this is inappropriate and is really very upsetting.” The government “seem not to want to resolve this” she said.
Her opinion seems to reflect that of the general public despite the attacks on the nurses and midwives in the media over the last week. The protest in Dublin over the weekend seems to confirm this.
These attacks will likely ramp up alongside increasing obstinance on the part of the government. Their supposed alarm that any capitulation to the wishes of the nurses may lead to an onslaught of similar claims is not what they really fear. Class and worker solidarity is the real fear.
People working together to improve their conditions and society in general is what scares them. That’s because it would involve a redistribution of wealth in the wrong direction. Instead of being redistributed up — which is the only appropriate direction for any redistribution of wealth – it would be redistributed to the people at the bottom, i.e., the workers.
Swathes of money can be found for a hospital whose cost is so obscene as to put it on a par with the worst excesses of dictators and their penchant for all things gold-plated.
The true cost of the hospital was known months ago. But given that redistribution in this case was directed at the right people and companies, it is an appropriate amount of expenditure.
Ensuring that we have a properly functioning public health system with adequately paid staff is not though. If it was funded and run the way it should be then it couldn’t be slowly dismantled, sold off to the lowest bidder, and privatised.
That is the endgame here. Not saving money, or ensuring that the government doesn’t have to deal with other unions and groups asking for more crumbs from the table.
A functioning public health system cannot be allowed to function under the conditions of a neoliberal society. It has to be made as inadequate and undesirable as possible in order to turn the public against it.
Once the appropriate amount of disdain for the health system exists, in swoop the private healthcare providers who will promise to save us all from the nightmare of “socialist” health provision.
Again, this is textbook economic policy. It was carried out with aplomb in the UK with the privatisation of the rail network and it is being carried here along the same lines but in the health system.
People can get in the way of this. Hence the need to shut down the protests as soon as possible; to make people believe that the striking nurses and midwives are a risk to the health of every person who relies on the public health system.
The government portrays itself as the saviour of the health system at the same time that it is destroying it.
Are people falling for this? Not yet, but never underestimate the ability of any government to whip up the suitable amount of fear and hostility when needed. For this reason the nurses and midwives must be successful.
They deserve, at the very least, a level of pay commensurate with the vocation they undertake. And it is a vocation. A person does not work shifts of 14 hours of being constantly on their feet without love for what they do.
Don’t expect the government to sway but likewise, don’t expect the nurses, midwives, and their fellow workers to give in to the greed and apathy of our leaders.