Harris warns nurses cannot ‘pick and choose’ from pay deal
Nursing union to announce plan for series of 24-hour strikes over pay
Members of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation protesting over conditions of employment outside Leinster House two years ago. File photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times
The last thing the health service needs is a strike, Minister for Health Simon Harris has said as nursing union leaders meet to plan a series of work stoppages over pay.
Mr Harris called on nurses to engage in further talks with the Government but warned that they could not “pick and choose” the parts of the overall public-service pay agreement that they liked.
The executive of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) is expected to announce on Tuesday the dates of a series of planned 24-hour stoppages in hospitals as part of its campaign for higher pay to tackle staff recruitment and retention problems.
The executive of the Psychiatric Nurses Association (PNA) is expected to set out its plans for strike action when it meets on Thursday.
Members of INMO and PNA voted in favour of strike action before Christmas after rejecting a €20 million package of proposals put forward by the Government to address recruitment and retention problems.
Speaking on Monday, Mr Harris said no dispute was ever resolved without engagement.
He said the last thing the health service needed was a strike. However, he said he did not believe nurses wanted to go on strike.
“I would hope that after the INMO concludes its own deliberations [on Tuesday] that we would be able to engage through the appropriate structures.”
However, he said any such engagement would have “to be cognisant of the fact that we do have a public-service pay agreement”.
“Unions have signed up to the public-service pay agreement and we can’t just pick and choose the bits of the public-service pay agreement that we like.
“Signing up to an agreement comes with benefits but it also comes with obligations.”
Mr Harris said he hoped everyone “will put their shoulders to the wheel to avert a dispute”.
Custom and practice in the health service suggests any work stoppages would not take place before the beginning of February, given the requirement to serve notice. Legally, however, nursing unions could take industrial action seven days after notifying the Health Service Executive of planned strikes.
Speaking to journalists at the weekend, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the Government would not reopen the pay agreement it had with all public servants to give a special deal to nurses.
Separately, Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe, writing in the Sunday Business Post, said that acceding to the nurses’ pay demands would “take us back to the bad old days of unsustainable and unaffordable pay rises with disastrous consequences for the public finances and, ultimately, taxpayers”.
The Government has maintained the nurses’ pay demands would cost €300 million.
Mr Varadkar said any extra money this year would be used to protect sectors where jobs were vulnerable because of Brexit. He said he understood the “depth of feeling” among nurses but stressed that the Government would not deviate from the pay deal in place with the public-sector unions.
Nurses are seeking across-the-board pay increases of about 12 per cent to bring them into line with other graduate-entry professions in the health service such as physiotherapy.
Nursing unions argue their members are paid about €7,000 a year less than staff in therapy grades but work more hours.
In September the Public Service Pay Commission found there was no generalised recruitment and retention problem but acknowledged there were localised difficulties in some areas.
The Government proposed, on foot of recommendations from the commission, a €20 million package of measures to tackle recruitment and retention problems. This was decisively rejected by the INMO and the PNA.