INO set to return to militancy on pay issue

 

When more than 200 delegates from the Irish Nurses' Organisation gather at the Burlington Hotel in Dublin this morning the union leadership will have no difficulty winning support for a motion to "reactivate the deferred strategy of nation-wide industrial action immediately".

A more difficult task will be to modify the pay demands some delegates will be making.

The benchmark issue will be salaries for the State's 2,500 ward sisters. The INO executive is calling for senior ward sisters to receive salaries of £31,000 a year, or £6,400 more than the current maximum. But one of the INO branch amendments down for today's conference calls for a new maximum of £35,000, the same salary as directors of nursing in major hospitals.

The conference has been called by the INO, the largest nursing union, to report on progress to date in talks, spell out objectives and obtain a mandate for strike action if negotiations break down.

There will be little enough progress to report. Talks at the Labour Relations Commission last week failed to resolve claims on extra long-service increments for staff nurses, or better rates of pay for ward sisters. Both issues have now been referred to the Labour Court, which is already dealing with the third pay item to emerge from last month's report of the Nursing Commission, allowances for extra professional qualifications held by nurses.

The Labour Court is due to hear submissions from the INO, other nursing unions and health service managers tomorrow on the qualifications issue. About half of the State's staff nurses have such qualifications, worth £347 a year. The union wants them re-rated at 10 per cent of basic salary, worth up to £2,200 a year for staff nurses at the top of the scale.

Big as the negotiating gap is, this issue is less difficult to resolve than the others, because it is less likely to lead to follow-on claims from other public service unions.

The union is looking for new long-service increments at the top of the current 15-year scale, which will add 18 per cent to basic salary. As 80 per cent of nurses never graduate to ward sister level, the INO argues that a nurse with 22 years' service should be earning £25,000.

It is also seeking a minimum 10 per cent pay differential between the maximum amount staff nurses can earn and the pay for the new clinical nurse managers I, recommended by the Nursing Commission. The differential for clinical nurse managers II should be 15 per cent and that for clinical nurse managers III should be 25 per cent. (The CNM I grade is to replace junior ward sisters, the CNM II replaces senior ward sisters and the CNM III grade is a new position to reflect the greater responsibility of sisters in key areas.)

The union argues that any smaller differentials will make it unattractive for staff nurses to accept promotion and forgo the opportunity for unsocial hours premiums. Recent offers from the management on overtime pay could make promotion even less attractive.

Last week, the nursing unions deferred a nationwide overtime ban only after management agreed to introduce a national framework for overtime payments. Ominously, the concession came after an overtime ban was introduced in Cork. For the first time nurses nationwide will be paid time-and-a-half, or double time for overtime.

But the unions are also demanding permanent part-time nursing posts be introduced, as a means of combating the increasing nursing shortage.

That there is a shortage of staff nurses is the one issue unions, health service managers and the Department of Health are agreed on. It is severest in Dublin hospitals, where it has closed more than 300 beds.

The shortage is the strongest argument in the armoury of the nursing unions. The general secretary of the INO, Mr Liam Doran, says: "There is an inherent contradiction in management being allowed to offer us overtime and then being unable, or unwilling, to address the nursing shortage by ensuring that the pay structures are adequate to attract a sufficient number of people in the first place."