Return to Trade Unions/Social Partnership menu
Eyes wide shut 

Nurses strike blind to hidden enemy

7 April 2007

John McAnulty

Over 40,000 Irish nurses began a work-to-rule on Monday 2nd April after more than three weeks of talks with the Health Service Employers (HSE) collapsed on April 1st.

Nurses and midwives in hospitals, psychiatric services and community facilities will not answer telephones, except in emergencies, or use computers in Accident and Emergency Departments to input clinical information. A ban on administrative work and other duties applies. The unions say the work-to-rule will continue until their demands for a 10% pay increase and a 35-hour working week are met.

the INO General Secretary, Liam Doran, and the Nursing Union executives are playing the narrow ground, hoping that public sympathy for the nurses and the looming general election will wring concessions from the Fianna Fail coalition government.  It’s a strategy that has already run into trouble.  Not only did Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Tanaiste Mary Harney immediately reject any compromise, the HSE and a number of papers launched a counterattack, claiming that the nurses were damaging patients interests and that they had behaved badly towards cancer patients.

The Nursing Unions have replied to their critics and promised to step up their action, but have ignored completely the political and economic base on which the attacks are based – the armour of social partnership that encircles government and employers and that is designed to hold workers in shackles of steel for the next ten years

Bertie Ahern spelt it out explicitly.  There were no circumstances on which he could meet the nurses demands because he was bound by the partnership agreement with employers and unions and the Nurses demands were well outside this agreement.  He urged them to enter the partnership framework and they could then achieve their objectives through the benchmarking mechanism built into the national agreement – a productivity mechanism that resources pay and conditions through speedups and job cuts.

This can hardly be a surprise to the Nurses. On November 10th last year the Labour Court rejected pay demands by two of the main nursing unions, saying their claim could only be addressed through the public service benchmarking process.  Labour Court Chairman Kevin Duffy said it would be neither desirable nor consistent with the terms of current or previous agreements for the court to supplant the exclusive functions of the benchmarking body.

This is an astounding judgement that shows how utterly workers rights have been removed.  Even though the Nurses did not agree to social partnership they are apparently to be bound by it. Social partnership is now deemed to have something like the force of the law of gravity. A victorious campaign must aim to threaten the existence of the government if it hopes to succeed.
There is one other clear message. If the Nurses are to be held back by the sanctity of social partnership then all sides of the agreement must oppose them.  That is the partners – the trade union bureaucracy – will also have to oppose the strike.  At the moment this consists of a deafening silence, but if the struggle becomes fiercer we will hear more from the bureaucracy – speaking out on the side of the bosses!

The Nurses themselves need to decisively take direct control of the campaign and to launch a nationwide call for mobilisation and for solidarity.  They should look to the rank and file of other unions to organise support, rather than rely on the duplicitous bureaucracy.  The aim of such a broad movement should not be so poor as to focus on the HSE.  The government, the employers in general and their allies in the trade union movement must all be confronted.
All of us with experience of the health service know how near collapse it is.  Just what it would look like with a demoralised Nursing staff, decimated by benchmarking, doesn’t bear thinking about.



Return to top of page