Explainer: The nurses strike and how we got here

Cáit Caden

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Nurses and midwives began talks of taking industrial action against the government late last year before completing three full 24-hour work stoppages and holding a public rally where supporters marched in solidarity with the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO).

Presently, the Labour Court has given its recommendations on how to resolve the issue of pay party amongst nurses and midwives.

The Labour Court, which is not a court of law but a body which provides recommendations based on how they believe disputes concerning employment law should be settled.

Therefore, even if the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation accept these recommendations the Government must also be willing to enter into negotiations, to solve the dispute based on the recommendations.

Meeting the nurses demands of pay parity would cost the state nealry €300m to achieve, which is the equivalent of a 12 per cent pay increase across the board for all nurses and midwives, according to Minister for Finance and Expenditure Pascal Donohoe.

The Labour Court’s recommendations would cost up €35 million next year.

The reason for strike action being taken goes back decades. Harsh working conditions nurses and midwives must face were heightened by the Croke Park Agreement (CPA) which was brought in by the Fianna Fail- Green Party coalition for all public sector workers.

Under the CPA, public sector workers had to create a new system amongst themselves with the aims of creating the same levels of productivity and efficiency with less money and less people in return for no compulsory redundancies or a decrease in pay rates. The CPA came into existence post-crash and post bail-out.

However, unions were concerned with certain parts of CPA such as rosters being changed, redeployment, working hours being extended and loss of allowances. Many of which happened to nurses as seen in scenarios of only two staff nurses working in a busy A&E or being rostered to work on a different ward that was not their speciality.

Although the CPA ended in 2014, nurses faced difficult conditions before the recession. The recent nurses and midwives strike represents the second time in 100 years that they have taken industrial action and many of the messages that were on placards back then were on the picket lines in 2019, such as: “Dispute On Here.”

“The number of staff nurses fell by 1,754 (6 per cent) between 2008 and 2018, despite an ageing, growing population making the health service busier,” said the INMO when announcing the strike.

2018 was one of the worst years for hospital overcrowding according to the HSE.

A main point that was brought up by INMO representatives was the topic of pay parity. It is general consensus that if nurses and midwives got paid a similar amount to other healthcare professionals such as physios or speech therapists that would lead to the retention of nurses trained in Ireland and subsequently less newly qualified nurses would emigrate. This would lead to safer staffing levels for both INMO members and patients.

Therefore, the recommendations by the Labour Court are increments, or increase in pay rates, but would also lead to pay parity.

Nurses are currently paid 20 per cent less than agency nurses.

One of the main concerns Donohoe and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had in conceding and providing the 40,000 INMO members with pay parity is that other unions would strike.

After the Labour Court gave their recommendations, Irish teachers have publicly considered taking strike action while the Ambulance service are currently taking industrial action.

If nurses demands are not met it could lead to more disruptions in terms of outpatient appointments, however if they are met Donohoe will need to undermine his own Public Service Stability Agreement.

 Cáit Caden

Image Credit: Flickr