Roots of nurses’ strike lie in the legacy of the financial crash

For most workers and businesses across the economy, the pain endured during the economic and financial crash was severe, writes Jim Power.

Thankfully, we have come out the other end and the economy is now very much back on track, for the moment at least.

There is still some legacy issues of the crash, including distressed mortgages, a still dysfunctional banking system, a dysfunctional housing market, and a financially stretched personal sector.

However, there is also a very obvious problem with the quality and quantity of public services.

This stems from poor delivery systems and a lack of adequate funding.

A lot of money was taken out of public services during the period of austerity, which in the context of a growing and an ageing population is now proving a problem.

For Government, this was an easier course to follow than standing up to our EU masters. We are now paying the price.

In the private sector, wages have not done very much over the past decade though the market will now look after that.

As we approach full employment, recruitment and retention will become an increasing feature of the workplace and wages will inevitably rise.

Not surprisingly, public sector workers are also seeking to recover lost ground. The Government agreed to a wage mechanism for the public sector in 2017 but that is now being strongly challenged by the nurses, who are now pounding the pavements.

I have a lot of sympathy with the plight of the nurses. They got a very raw deal during the benchmarking process in the early 2000s and they had every right to feel aggrieved at the end of that deeply flawed and deeply political process.

They are now working in a health service that is pretty dysfunctional.

A lack of beds, a lack of adequate staffing and very difficult working conditions create disillusionment.

They work in an environment where leadership and decent management from the Department of Health and the HSE are seriously lacking, to put it mildly.

Nurses deserve to be paid more given the job they do and under the conditions in which they do it.

Of courses, nurses choose the career that they are pursuing, and those who entered the profession over the past 10 years should have known exactly the type of dysfunctional work environment they were seeking to get into.

If they didn’t, well then they should have done some basic research.

From the perspective of Government and the prudent management of the public finances, the nursing dispute poses an enormous challenge.

It is generally accepted that settlement of the dispute would add about €300m to the annual pay bill.

This is not an enormous sum of money, particularly when viewed in the context of the black hole that the children’s hospital is falling into.

However, the thing that really worries the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is that by succumbing to the nurses’ demands, that old enemy called relativity will raise its ugly head. Already some unions are suggesting that if the nurses get what they want, they too will want more.

Government and trade unions should recognise the unique and very valuable jobs that nurses do and the difficulty of recruiting and retaining nurses.

However, one would hardly expect such sensible behaviour from the other trade unions.

Once this dispute is ended in whatever way that will happen, but presumably through a pay increase, the challenge for those who manage the health service will be to ensure that the working environment improves, that staffing levels are adequate, that they have a career path, and most importantly that they see decent and professional management from the HSE and the Department of Health.

In conclusion, two things strike me about the nursing dispute.

Firstly the housing crisis is the kernel of the problem.

If one cannot afford to buy or rent a house close to where one works, then that is a problem and it nurtures serious discontent.

Secondly, the trade off between increasing pay and increasing staffing levels in the public sector will be extremely difficult in an economy that still has a very high level of debt and which will face enormous demographic challenges over the coming decades.

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