The failure of the Labour Court to make any formal intervention in the nurses’ dispute with the Government to prevent them taking strike action in the first place is worrying, particularly in light of the overtime ban by psychiatric nurses and yesterday’s protest by 500 general practitioners.
Anyone concerned about the escalation of industrial action by nurses should note how an equally protracted dispute involving gardaí in the latter half of 2016 was settled. In November of that year, members of the Garda Representative Association and the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors called off a strike following intervention by the Labour Court in what had become an increasingly difficult row. The strike would have been a first ever and its cancellation was met with a collective sigh of relief from Government.
Just like the nurses, the Garda claims went beyond pay and included a sustained four-year campaign to gain access to industrial relations mechanisms which up to then had been disallowed on the grounds of a perceived risk to state security.
Given the escalation of the current disputes, a timely intervention by the Labour Court would have been expected. Instead, on the eve of the first stoppage last week by INMO members, the court decided not to intervene, concluding that doing so would not have prevented the strike going ahead. That is a rare admission of defeat by the Labour Court and one that we must all hope will not be repeated.
The sight of thousands of nurses and midwives braving the icy weather on the picket line last week shows how determined they are to fight what has become a war of attrition with the Government and the HSE over pay, conditions and staff shortages. A further five 24-hour strikes have been scheduled while the Psychiatric Nurses Association has started an escalating campaign of industrial action.
The Government is equally determend that the €300m claim by the INMO is not affordable, would trigger knock-on claims and undermine economic security as Brexit looms. Those polarised positions reveal one certainty: both sides are asking too much of the other.
The Government is expecting nurses to do far more with far less and it isn’t all about pay. Chronic staff shortages mean that nurses on the wards are being run ragged. That is neither healthy nor safe for nurses or patients. As any health professional will know, you can’t sprint all the time. The message from the picket line is that nurses are trying to save lives while the Government is trying to save money.
The demands of the nurses are equally unrealistic. As anyone working in the private sector since the financial crash will know, economic uncertainty has resulted in hundreds of thousands of workers being forced to work harder and longer for less, without the cushion of job security enjoyed by public servants. A pay increase of 12% is simply unrealistic.
Given this situation, it is now essential that the Labour Court, as honest broker, makes an intervention. As Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe has already indicated, the Government will have to take its recommendations seriously.
Common sense dictates that the same goes for the nurses.