Over 35,000 nurses were due to start a work to rule this month over the appalling conditions many now forced to work under especially in A&E s. While the core issue for the nurses’ union is retention of staff, the issue goes to the heart of the crisis in the health service and the attack on public sector workers in general.
The INMO estimate that the health service needs another 5000 workers across all grades to meet demand. There are currently 3500 less nurses in public hospitals than in 2008. Many new graduates are simply emigrating abroad to better pay and conditions. Meanwhile the private sector continues to lure experienced staff, with one report of a private hospital offering €5,000 in a lump sum to nurses to leave the public sector.
In the meantime, under the previous agreement accepted by union leaders, nurses and other public sector workers are expected to accept continued pay and pension reductions, and to work a free shift each month in overcrowded and understaffed hospitals. In the last decade as a direct result of cuts and government policy over 1600 beds have been taken out of the hospital system.
The result is the recurring trolley and waiting list crisis. While the public sector is deliberately run down, its boom time for private clinics and hospitals. No wonder many nurses are forced to leave the public system.
The nurses campaign is an expression of the frustration that many workers feel at the continued straight jacket imposed on them by the Lansdowne road agreement. This ensures low pay and the use of emergency legislation (Fempi) to retain cuts imposed during the recession.
Unfortunately union leaders in both SIPTU and the INMO are reluctant to break with this deal. SIPTU leaders, including the Labour party’s Paul Bell called off proposed strike by other health workers in return for a deal which essentially gave nothing to workers.
In response to anger from members a deal accepted by the unions will see a five month advance of a partial restoration of pay worth 1000 euro over the year. This is not a pay rise; it simply restores some of the wages taken from workers since the recession and leaves many of the other conditions imposed on workers intact.
Workers need to break with these agreements. The crisis in the health service is part of an overall attack on public services which the FG led Government intends to continue in any new deal with unions. Minister Pascal Donohue has made clear that any new deal will focus on attacking the very concept of a pension for workers in the public sector or use it to impose lower rates of pay. This must be resisted. If the nurses do take action it could inspire other workers to do likewise.