Wednesday, November 25, 2009

My First Strike - Picket Lines and the Public Sector

Today was a red-letter day for me as I went on strike for the first time in my life. I spent the day on or around the picket lines at Dungarvan Community Hospital which was our designated local workplace for picket duty and it was an absolutely filthy day weather-wise. It was cold and windy and rained from about 11 o'clock onwards.

The strike was the culmination of a joint effort by all the Trade Unions in the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) to galvanise the public sector against the government's unfair targeting and villifying of the civil and public sector workers in the current recession. It was not an impulsive or petulant action - rather it was the result of frustration at the intransigence of the government to listen to or engage with the Union leadership in any serious negotiations on proposals to cut pay again in the coming budget.

We are prepared to do our patriotic duty as Brian Lenihan called it last year in his Budget speech but we are not prepared to be sitting ducks for slash and burn cuts and back-door hatchet jobs on our pay, while the banks are being bailed out and many of the self-same bankers that bankrupted the country (apt word that) are wondering how soon they can bring back their bonus payments and lift the cap the government imposed on their CEOs. €500,000 was the cap set just in case any of you were wondering how heartless it was to expect a bank CEO to survive on a pittance pay cut - now that's down from the €2.9 million that the (former) head of Bank of Ireland was paid last year and his response at being asked whether he was taking a pay cut last year was to say that he too would be earning less than €2 million this year! A joke that spectacularly backfired as the opprobrium of a nation poured down on his hapless head and he slinked out the door - followed by a fat pension. That's falling on your sword Irish business style while the nurses, gardai (police), civil and public servants are getting unilateral levies of approx. 7.5% imposed on their pensions and mileage pay cut by 25% without any consultation last May. So that's the background to today's day of action and strike.

I am the local representative for the INO (Irish Nurses' Organisation) Public Health Nurses and I ended up organising things for our members in the Waterford area. This was mainly communicating and liaising with everyone and ensuring that everyone knew what to do, as well as finalising picket duty rosters. This meant everyone was expected to do a two-hour stint on picket duty and they had to sign in as well, so that the union will know who participated. There is a strong moral obligation on members to fulfil their role as union members by taking an active role in a strike or any industrial action and thankfully most INO members recognise that and showed up and did their patriotic duty today.

There is a real sense of grievance at the treatment and perception of the public sector that is promulgated by the right-wing media and by the government which will lead to further unrest and probably more strike days. There is a real divide and rule approach pitting the public and private sector against each other which is detrimental to both, and yet it is very hard to stay silent in the face of such vilification. Many in the private sector are of the opinion that we should be grateful to have a job and perceived job security and put up or shut up.

As someone who worked in both the private and public sector I can appreciate some of the frustration of those poorly paid private sector workers who are now in very vulnerable situations and at risk of losing their jobs but the country needs solidarity not division right now - the vitriol towards the public sector is unfairly tarring everyone with the same brush - we accept the need for restraint in public spending and that's why we can't understand why there isn't a higher tax band for high earners as proposed last year by Labour, and why the TDs (MPs) are able to draw down their pension after 10 years services while we wait 30-40 years to retire on a half salary, or why the low paid are always being expected to contribute disproportionately. Mary Harney told people to shop around - now when they go to Newry and other Northern Ireland towns to shop they are accused of economic treason by spending their money outside the state!

This will go on - but for now I am stopping. We may be back on the pickets on December 3rd if the Union-Government talks are stonewalled.


Ann said...

I was a civil servant in Ireland back in the day, and also a union representative for my area. Hopefully your voices will be heard, but I fear they will fall on deaf ears. Funny how the only voices heard are the suits, in Ireland and the US. The ones responsible for this mess! In the meantime, I hope you have warmed up. A

Niamh Griffin said...

Hmmm, normally when someone does something for the first time I would offer congratulations but maybe not in this case! I agree with you that public and private sector workers shouldn't 'turn on each other' as seems to be happening; it doesnt solve anything...just ruins friendships as I've seen a few times now over the last few weeks. Very sad.

Rudee said...

And the rich keep getting richer. It's the same despicable story here. Most nurses are not unionized in the US, but I don't think it would make much of a difference. Unions don't have the power here that they used to.

Although I've not had a traditional pay cut, and indeed, I've had a raise, I've also had to give up two paid days off. That's a tongue-in-cheek raise that I got. In the meantime, the CEO of our parent organization earns 2.5 million dollars a year. I wonder how much vacation time he gave up. Probably none.

Keep fighting--it is worthwhile to stick up for your rights.