Harney beware. The nurses are coming January 17, 2007Posted by franklittle in Fianna Fáil, Greens, Health, Irish Election 2007, Irish Labour Party, Irish Politics, Medical Issues, Progressive Democrats, Sinn Féin, Trade Unions.
Last Monday’s Questions and Answers was unusual for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I watched it, having been lured away many moons ago by the higher standard of political discussion on The Panel, and Podge and Rodge. But what was also a little puzzling was what was not discussed during a debate on health issues.
Minister Harney, Sinn Féin’s Health spokesperson Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD and Dr Orla Hardiman of the newly founded Doctor’s Alliance went around the houses on the issue for some time. Harney chose to blame the problems in the health crisis on consultants and, basically, anyone but her, in the standard PD habit of blaming someone else. McDowell and the judiciary for gangland crime is another example.
What interested me the most was no-one said a word about the nurses. For the month of January the Irish Nursing Organisation and the Psychiatric Nurses Association have been holding regional meetings of their members while balloting for industrial action. Reports that found their way to the Little household indicate packed meetings with standing room only and a very, very militant attitude.
And they have much to be militant about. It is over 25 years since the Labour Court said nurses and midwives should be the first to benefit from a reduction in the working week. Yet they are the only health professionals to work a 39 hour week today, everyone else at what no doubt IBEC would see as a slothful 35. They are also the lowest paid of all graduate health professionals, to such a degree that 70%, almost three in four, nurses and midwives have left the country within 18 months of graduating.
As well as industrial balloting, members at these meetings are being given powerpoint presentations outlining their demands, and the arguments in favour, and instructed to besiege all candidates and elected representatives in their clinics until further notice. The INO/PNA leaderships have also met with all the parties except the Greens and Labour curiously enough, though I suspect scheduling differences other than Labour not taking the nurses seriously. That said, the Shinners were the first to meet them. Eyes firmly on the ball it seems.
The core of the nurses’ demands is the reduction in the working week, a 10% increase in pay with a cost of living increase of 3%. These increases would bring them in line with other personnel working in the healthcare sector and address a number of pay anomalies. In comparison to other workers for example, a nurse earns 7,000 Euros per annum less than a play therapist on graduation. Social Care Workers, who in many cases have to report to nurses, earn 3,000 euro per annum more than the nurses, and although the gap narrows after the sixth pay increment, always earn more.
The 3% cost of living increase, by the way, is due to the nurses under the new Towards 2016 pay agreement but the HSE before Christmas embarked on a campaign of trade union intimidation, circulating a form asking workers to identify what union, if any, they are a member of and threatening to refuse the increase to INO or PNA members. William martin Murphy’s play book has been dusted off in the HSE bunker it seems.
At this point, with the Health Service Executive sticking to it’s guns if they’re set on pursuing this union intimidation tactic, a massive vote in favour of industrial action by the 40,000 workers affected is likely to be announced at the start of February. This will authorise limited forms of strike action, lunchtime protests, work to rule etc. As Liam Doran of the INO has said, “The strategy will be to maximise pressure on management while minimising the impact on patients and members.”
And then it might get interesting for Harney. The nurses are one of the very few groups of workers Irish society is sympathetic to. If anyone else goes on strike, especially transport workers or taxi drivers, they are lucky not to be run over by Liveline inspired Fianna Fáil voters trying to stamp out the Red Menace. But nurses, and to a lesser extent firefighters and teachers, get a pass. Anyone who has listened to people complaining about the health service on radio or television often hears the complainant signal the nurses out for praise. Nurses are, rightly, not held responsible for the failures of the health service.
In other words, industrial action by the nurses less than four months before a general election, especially when linked to the problems in the health service, has the potential to receive massive public support and do serious damage to Harney. The nurses are refusing to go through Benchmarking, so if the Government backs down, they undermine Benchmarking and, to a lesser extent, Towards 2016. If they hold firm, it will be Mary Harney versus the nurses. If I was her, I wouldn’t have wanted it mentioned on Q&A either.