Nurses in Ireland are taking industrial action over pay and working hours. 40,000 members of the Irish Nurses’ Organisation and the Psychiatric Nurses’ Association, seeking a 10.6% pay rise alongside a 4-hour cut in their 39-hour working week, are in the third week of working-to-rule, refusing to do clerical or IT work. One-hour stoppages have taken place across the country, including in the largest hospital in Ireland, St. James’s in Dublin.
Nurses are the only qualified group in Irish hospitals to work a 39-hour week – other grades work 35, with some clerical staff working 33. Hospital porters, organised by public sector union SIPTU, also work 39 hours – despite settling its national wage claim for the nurses it organises, SIPTU is in talks with INO around its claim for a 35-hour week for thousands of health sector workers. A victory over hours for nurses has potential repercussions for large sections of Irish workers – there are signs that other workers in the sector, such as childcare staff, will seek a similar arrangement if the nurses win, and improvements in pay and conditions in the public sector are likely to impact private health companies too.
In the run-up to a general election in Ireland, beating the unions in the health sector would be a massive gain for the right-wing Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat government. As in Britain, the Irish health service is being privatised piece-by-piece, with massive tax breaks for private hospitals, higher charges for public patients treated in private hospitals and large-scale siphoning of public money into private hands. 70% of Irish nurses leave within three years of completing their training.
The Irish health unions are showing the way with their militant, nationally-coordinated pay campaign. As British unions discuss national action over public sector pay, they could learn important lessons.