Interview with striking electricians at St. James’ Hospital

Seven electricians, members of the TEEU (www.teeu.ie) have been out on strike at St. James’ Hospital since Tuesday 19 February. socialistparty.net interviewed three of them, John McMahon, Geoff Mell and Alan O’Connor.

Tell me about your strike…

This started with Health and Safety measures implemented by electricians to safeguard ourselves, all others in the hospital and visitors. There was unauthorised access to electrical fuseboxes going on, which was putting lives at risk. We locked up the fuseboards as a result, which management took exception to. We had put locks on fuseboards many times in the past. Management this time instructed us to take the locks off. When we told them this was a Health and Safety issue, they simply got people to cut the locks off and they suspended three of us who were there on the day. This was 18 weeks ago, on 24 October.

The three were then suspended and all seven of us were involved in an investigation under the hospital disciplinary process. Our dispute is that there should be no disciplinary process, we were involved in a Health and Safety issue. According to Section 27 of the Safety, Health & Welfare at Work Act, 2005, that excludes management from taking any disciplinary action against us. After balloting, we started the strike last Tuesday.

The Health and Safety Authority was then called in by the union to do an audit. They concluded that the hospital did not have a proper electrical safety procedure in place and gave them until 8 March to put one in place or they will be prosecuted. We feel completely vindicated by this position of the HSA.

What lies behind the strike do you think?

Management would like to close down the Technical Services Department, to get rid of the electricians. At the moment, they have contractors in there doing the job of electricians. They just want managers or others to be able to play around with switchboards, like they would at home. But this is really dangerous for this to be happening here – it’s putting people’s lives in danger. It’s precisely why you have electricians employed in the first place. You have an Electrical Department for safety – that’s the most important thing here. They’re willing to undermine safety.

What has management’s response been?

We attended a conciliation meeting at the Labour Relations Commission last Wednesday to try to resolve the issue. There was no resolution and the guy from the LRC said we should go to the Labour Court. The management refused to go to the Labour Court. Our experience is that the Labour Court normally rules in favour of management, so the fact that they’re refusing to go to the Labour Court means that they know they’re wrong!

Our union is going independently to the Labour Court. The judgement will be binding on us, but we’re very confident that we will win. If we do, we think the management will try to ignore the Labour Court ruling.

What has support been like?

We’ve had people come out from the hospital to give us verbal support, but people are scared, are afraid of their jobs. Rumours have been passing around saying that it’s not an official picket or that people can lose their jobs for refusing to pass the picket. Our union has now applied to ICTU for an all-out picket on the hospital.

If people want to support us, they can tell others about the strike. We want to raise public awareness about it. They can also contact their TDs and ask them to raise this issue in the Dail. Also, people can come down to the gate here and give us moral support – that’s very important.