The year, 2019 has, so far, been marked by a relative resurgence in industrial action by workers in the South of Ireland. In 2018, there were 4,340 strike action days across all sectors of the economy; to the end of June, this year, were 35,108 strike days.
Two major strikes in the health service at the start of the year account for most of this figure. Nurses and midwives struck in January and February in pursuit of better pay and conditions. Support staff in the health service struck later in the year for the implementation of a job evaluation process. Currently, there are a number of significant strikes underway and one hugely significant lock-out.
English language teachers are in protracted strike action at the Delfin Language School in Dublin. English language teaching has been a huge area of profit making for the Irish bosses over the past decades. Hundreds of thousands of students from across the world come to Ireland, each year, to learn English. Fees are high and accommodation is often ‘locked in’ to benefit the school owner’s landlord pals.
The English Language Teaching (ELT) sector is almost completely non-unionised and exploitation is rife. Wages are low; contracts are very short term, with one month contracts often the norm; there are little or no benefits, like paid sick leave or holiday pay and a culture of bullying is entrenched in the sector. Several schools have collapsed overnight in recent years, leaving staff and students high and dry with no legal recourse to unpaid wages or fee refunds. UNITE the union is organising in the sector and the Delfin teachers are UNITE members. The success of the strike will be important for consolidating a trade union presence in the sector and demonstrating to currently unorganised teachers the benefits of union membership and strike action.
Elsewhere, workers at SK Biotek, in Swords, County Dublin, have been locked out by their bosses, who want to tear up a Transfer of Undertaking (TUPE) agreement, three and half years before it is due to end. The bosses are intent on instituting a race to the bottom at this plant in an effort to gouge out more profit. Despite the workers themselves drawing up a plan to show how the plant could remain viable, without attacking wages and conditions, the bosses ploughed ahead with their attack on the workforce. At the time of writing, SK Biotek workers are maintaining a 24-hour picket at the plant and are hopeful of a resolution in their interests.
The CWI in Ireland are calling for the trade union movement to urgently mobilise to end this lockout for a victory for SK Biotek workers.
Highly trained workers
What marks both the Delfin and SK Biotek dispute is that workers in both industries are highly trained and educated. For decades, a mantra of the capitalist establishment in Ireland has been that education and skills are the pathway to comfort, prosperity and stability for workers. Yet, in the English language sector, conditions are often akin to the nineteenth century. One hundred and six years after the great Dublin Lockout, involving a mainly unskilled workforce of dockers and labourers, the three hundred and fifty workers at SK Biotek, educated to the highest level, now find themselves locked out by their bosses.
These disputes show that it is completely untrue that education, of itself, offers any protections from capitalism. Hopefully, educated workers who remain outside the trade union movement, in the false belief that demand for their skills will always guarantee them a living, will draw the necessary conclusions and join a trade union.
Capitalism offers workers nothing except the lowest wages it can get away with. Workers, of all skills and educational levels, need to organise in their unions to fightback against the attacks of capitalism. But that can only ever be a defensive strategy. What is ultimately needed is for workers to go onto the offensive and build a socialist society where lockouts and exploitation are ended, once and for all.
(November 21st 2019)
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