Lab Scientists Strikes Raises Stakes for Health Workers After COVID

Members of The Medical Laboratory Scientists Association (MLSA), an independent union, began the second stage of their campaign of industrial action this week. This follows on from a one day strike on 18 May. This week’s action was initially intended as a two day strike but strike action was suspended on 24 May to allow negotiations at the Labour Court. The MSLA planned gradual escalation of action was in response to a complete lack of engagement by the HSE and Department of Health following last week’s one day stoppage. The background to this dispute, however, raises several important issues for all Irish workers.

94% of MLSA’s members voted for industrial action last November. This is the second time members have taken such action in the union’s 60 year history. Members are demanding pay parity with colleagues doing similar work in Biochemistry. According to a press release issued last November: ‘Parity was awarded in 2001 following an Expert Group Report, but was lost due to an unintentional procedural effect of the 2002 benchmarking process.’

MLSA members are paid an average of 8% less than their colleagues in Biochemistry doing similar work.

They also point out that there are 20% unfilled laboratory posts in hospitals, and that Medical Laboratory Scientists have ‘fewer career development opportunities and less support for training and education than comparable colleagues.’ At the same time demands for their services increase with an expansion of roles with an increased workload and responsibility. A pattern repeated for other grades across the public health system.

On the face of it, the demands from the MLSA are moderate and easily achievable and it is puzzling why the HSE or Department of Health are not engaging with them. Plans for strike action were called off last March to allow for talks but these delivered no satisfaction for members. Their frustration is understandable to say the least.

Their industrial action has been met with the usual disgraceful PR onslaught in the media. This onslaught relies on the age old tactic of emotional blackmail focussing on the cancellation of procedures and the effects on patients. Coming on the heels of a two year pandemic, which has seen health staff placed on the front line in an exhausting and often deadly battle against Covid19, these tactics are underhanded and will fail. Most workers understand the struggle the MLSA members are going through and know its cause lies with HSE management, and their bosses in government, not the staff.

However HSE management are bullish. The Department of Health claims the strike action is a breach of the current pay deal ‘Building Momentum’ which the Department claims ‘includes the process of sectoral bargaining to address outstanding claims…’ However, 96% of MLSA members rejected the 2020 ‘Building Momentum’ agreement, saying it did not address long-standing recruitment and retention issues. Small unions, like the MLSA, are always heavily out-voted in these agreements by the big unions like SIPTU and FORSA. This is yet another reason why these types of agreements fail to serve the interests of workers in the public sector.

The government, and some elements in the bureaucracy at the top of the trade unions, will not want the MLSA strike actions to succeed. If the MLSA wins it will show the rest of the 320,000 workers in the public sector that strike action delivers. This will be an inconvenient development in the days leading up to the imminent talks on a successor to the ‘Building Momentum’ agreement. All of the indications to date are that trade union negotiators will not push for inflation busting pay rises. This means they plan to accept an effective pay cut for 320,000 workers at a time of a huge cost of living crisis. Yet in exchange for this real term pay cut public sector workers will be asked, yet again, to refrain from taking industrial action!

Militant Left gives our wholehearted support and solidarity to the MLSA strikers. Without the critical services these workers provide, the diagnostic facilities in public hospitals would be unworkable. Not to mention the immense diagnostic work performed over the last two years of the ongoing Covid Pandemic. We argue they not only deserve pay parity but like all workers they deserve a pay rise to combat the increasing rate of inflation and the current cost of living crisis. While talks at the Labour Court may deliver what MLSA members are demanding it is at least as likely that some half-hearted compromise will be reached which will undoubtedly set the seeds for future action.

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