Since January 2018, there has been a protracted industrial dispute in the South between the Health Service Executive (HSE) and front-line ambulance service workers represented by the National Ambulance Service Representative Association (NASRA) over recognition and the workers’ right to choose which union represents them. It’s a dispute that has so far received no public support from the Executive Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), which represents 44 affiliated trade unions across Ireland, North and South.
The context of this dispute goes back almost 10 years. In November 2009, hundreds of ambulance service workers left the main health unions. Frustrated and angry with the lack of union resistance to government austerity and bullying, they initiated NASRA, a branch of the Psychiatric Nurses’ Association (PNA), with 49 years of collective bargaining in the HSE.
By January 2018, NASRA became the largest branch, with 611 members out of 1,300 front-line staff due to their member-led approach to workplace issues. The HSE decided not to process any further union applications and stopped union subscriptions at source, effectively de-recognising NASRA. Negotiations quickly ran aground and a ballot for industrial action returned 97% support. Since October, NASRA conducted numerous public protests, a work-to-rule and several days of strike action, receiving overwhelming support from the general public and health workers, with many members from other unions standing with strikers and refusing to cross picket lines.
In the tradition of trade union movement, NASRA rightly called for solidarity. There has been individual support from trade union activists, as well as the Belfast health branch of NIPSA. Unite the Union declared that it would support its members if they refused to cross the picket lines.
However , the ICTU Executive has remained silent, allowing the HSE to argue this is an intra-union dispute. This is a smokescreen. This is a fight to protect the fundamental rights of workers to be represented by the union of their choice. The HSE wants to determine which unions they will negotiate with. Unfortunately, the silence of ICTU suggests this is the preferred option of some influential trade union leaders who support partnership agreements with employers.
This dispute has again exposed the retreat from class struggle and solidarity by many union leaderships, particularly in the South. The NASRA dispute is a direct challenge to years of disastrous partnership deals, government austerity and conservative, top-down union bureaucracy. A highly democratic and militant union branch, NASRA reflects a changing mood of workers, who are beginning to reclaim and rebuild genuinely member-led trade unionism, rejecting the idea that unions are there to manage capitalism alongside the bosses. Trade unionists who want to re-build an fighting, democratic and member-led union movement should bring NASRA’s fight to exist into their union branches and workplaces. Please send messages of support to firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Pat Lawlor, NIPSA Vice-President (personal capacity)