Return to Recent Articles menu

Squaring the circle

Government, union bureaucracy put nurses back in their box

17 February 2019

In antiquity Greek mathematicians came up with an insoluble problem called "squaring the circle”.  The term entered the English language as a metaphor for an impossible task.

Yet this is the task that INMO General Secretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha, alongside the executives of the nurses and midwives union and the psychiatric nurses union, with the support of ICTU, set out to achieve.

She was to win nurse's demands on pay, retention of members in the health service and for equality with other public sector graduate pay scales. Nurses saw the demands as not only benefiting themselves, but as relieving pressure on a collapsing health service.

Yet she was to do all this within the context of the Public Sector Stability Agreement - specifically designed by government and union bureaucracy to enforce pay restraint and to delay or prevent the restoration of pay and conditions in place before the 2008 credit crunch.

It's hardly surprising if the recommendations of the Labour Court mean nurses remain trapped in a box, with none of the issues resolved.

In order to understand the labour court recommendation we have to look back at the report  of the Public Sector Pay Commission, itself a coalition of the union bureaucracy and the government, published last September. It rejected outright the case for an overall pay increase to ensure retention of nurses,  accepted that there might be shortages in specific areas and set aside €20 million in allowances for this, going on to suggest that changes in pay rates could be won by nurses taking on extra duties.The chair of the pay commission, former bureaucrat Kevin Duffy, acted as mediator in negotiating defeat following the last major nurses strike of 1999.

Compare the sum of €20 million offered by the pay commission with estimates of €15 million this year and €30 million next year in the Labour Court decision - an offer offset by clawing back of €30 million set aside for amelioration of two tier pay for public sector entrants. Contrast this with the €300 million  a year required to provide the generalised increase demanded by the nurses and the limits of the union leadership's achievements become clear. The fact that many payments are in the form of allowances means there is no increase in employer pension guarantees. Half of the nursing workforce will see no significant increase in pay.

The Labour Court echoes the Pay Commission suggestion in proposals for a new pay grade that will apply to senior nurses who sign a new contract and agree to even more work so that they can pay for their own wage increase. The usual review is included, promising all sorts of goodies in the future in exchange for surrender now.

The proposals focus on two groups. Young nurses will fast-tracked to the next increment, skipping increment 2, a manoeuvre similar to the bringing forward of existing payments in the last public sector deal so that money in the hand will distract from the weakness of the overall proposals. The other group is senior nurses at the top of the pay scale who will now be offered movement to a new scale. This will be cost neutral in that savings will be made by withdrawing agency staff and having nurses work harder. The Labour Court will review implementation and scrap the deal if savings are not made.

The nurses saw their action as benefiting patients by increasing resources. The deal says that improvements will come from nurses undertaking more work. A lot of the new work will be in the community and will be a target for the outsourcing and privatisation that has bled the health service dry, as was the case in the children's hospital scam.

The PSSA mechanism has emerged victorious. It has preserved the government's budget and fiscal rectitude by capping the money available for nurses pay and for a public health service. The Labour Court, aided by ICTU and  the leaders of the major unions, alongside the executives of the nurses and midwives and the psychiatric nurses unions, have been so successful that the same model is now offered to teachers and  other public sector unions. The effect would be to hold down for another year or two the cost of public sector pay and of public services generally.

There is however another side to the story. The pressure from below is growing constantly. After a decade of austerity the workers were told that the Irish economy had recovered. The wealthy have never had it so good. Yet full pay and pensions keep receding into the far future while at the same time speculators push up mortgages and rents.

The result is that the various public pay agreements are subject to periodic crises. The garda drove a coach and horses through pay restraint. Open scabbing and the use of anti-strike laws were needed to crush ASTI action to achieve equal pay for younger teachers. Payments in the last deal were brought forward to head off revolt with the result that no money is left to make any significant further payments,

So what the nurses deal does is push the Public Sector Stability Agreement to its absolute limit. Any sustained revolt by workers will see the whole edifice crashing down.

There are obstacles to such a revolt. The saga of Dublin Bus tells us that when workers reject bad agreements they are balloted again and again until they get the vote right. This is likely to happen to nurses if they reject the deal. Threats of the use of emergency legislation to dock pay if the deal is refused are already being made.

A revolt needs a different political consciousness. For the first time ever the scabbing of the union leaders was in plain sight. SIPTU, FORSA and INTO leaders resolutely opposed solidarity and demanded that the settlement stay inside the borders of the PSSA.

When ASTI fought for equal pay for equal work they were handcuffed to INTO and TUI and forced to submit. Today Patricia King of SIPTU and ICTU went into the talks with the nurses to help draft the terms of retreat.    Ironically, as King posed as the friend of the nurses, ambulance workers, members of the psychiatric nurses union, were on strike, denied union recognition by an alliance of SIPTU and Health Service employers.

If we are to fight this constant scabbing we need to organise in a new way. local committees need to link across hospitals, across unions and within communities so that they can organise independently of the bureaucracies.

The circle can't be squared. To have decent pay and conditions we must break the Public Sector Stability Agreement. Union leaders and government are united in arguing that only constant payment to the banks and bondholders, constant sacrifice by the workers, can save Ireland. We can see that only the bosses and the landlords benefit. It is time we organised on our own behalf, putting the interests of the Irish working class ahead of the interests of imperialism.

Return to top of page