Deferral of nurses’ strike buys Government some time

Movement on hiring eases things but pay demands will be back on table in two months

The INMO executive council  decided to call off Tuesday’s industrial action. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The INMO executive council decided to call off Tuesday’s industrial action. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

The decision by nurses to defer planned industrial action will be greeted with great relief by the Government.

The work-to-rule by 35,000 members of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO), scheduled to commence on Tuesday, would have led to the cancellation of procedures and appointments for patients, further bed closures and greater numbers of people on trolleys and waiting lists.

Such a development would have heaped enormous pressure on Minister for Health Simon Harris. It would also have posed a huge challenge to the Government’s pay strategy, which has been stitched back together following the controversial €50 million deal agreed with the Garda in November to avert a strike.

The Government has brought forward pay rises for 250,000 other public service personnel at a cost of €120 million to assuage union anger over the Garda deal, which broke the terms of the Lansdowne Road public pay deal.

The strategy being pursued now focuses on negotiating a successor to Lansdowne Road in the summer after the Public Service Pay Commission reports. In this scenario, any increases would not come into effect until next year. Any concession on pay to nurses would have blown this approach out of the water and more than likely triggered a spate of demands from other public service groups for immediate increases of their own.

The nurses wanted Government action to improve staff recruitment and retention in hospitals in the face of stiff competition, and better terms, from institutions both at home and abroad.

Holding firm

The Government agreed to take on 1,200 more nurses this year and gave greater autonomy to nursing managers to hire personnel. A special pre-retirement programme was among other initiatives offered over the weekend.

But it did hold firm on pay, insisting that apart from areas such as reintroducing allowances for staff recruited since 2011 – a measure previously agreed for gardaí, teachers, firefighters and non-consultant doctors – there was no mechanism for securing improved remuneration outside the pay commission process.

The INMO’s decision to back away from an immediate confrontation has to be seen in the context of the remarkable intervention last week by a group known as the oversight body for the Lansdowne Road agreement.

This group, comprising leaders of the public service trade union movement and public service managers, effectively warned the INMO that serious consequences could flow from any industrial action, and would leave them outside the protections afforded by Lansdowne Road. This meant they could lose out on the €1,000 pay rise being brought forward to April; increments could also be forfeited.

Crucially, the INMO could lose its place at the table for the negotiations of the successor to the Lansdowne Road, which are likely to start in May.

Not gone away

The deferral of the industrial action and the recommendation by the INMO that its members should accept the revised set of proposals hammered out in the early hours of Saturday morning, will be very welcome to the Government.

However, in reality the development only buys it some time.

The issue of the pay demands – the INMO was seeking a package worth up to €180 million – has not gone away and will be back on the agenda within a couple of months.

The Government has acknowledged it is finding it difficult to recruit and retain nurses and the INMO is adamant the State will have to tackle this shortage by offering significant pay increases once the pay commission finishes its work.

How special arrangements for nurses – and doctors, who are also difficult to recruit and retain – will sit in what is supposed to be an overarching public service agreement remains to be seen.