Industrial Action threat by Nurses is unnecessary and in breach of the Public Service Agreement
The current threat of industrial action by the largest nurses’ union represent a determined threat to public sector pay policy by a significant public sector union. Nobody doubts the importance of the work undertaken by our nurses across the health service but in advancing their claim, they do so knowing that they are placing themselves outside of the terms of the Public Service Stability Agreement 2018-2020 (PSSA) on pay. They are seeking to exploit public sympathy whilst being prepared to risk patient care as a cynical industrial weapon should the dispute occur on 30th January and then escalate in February. (The Psychiatric Nurses Association has also announced its 6,000 members will strike in February in an escalating campaign over pay and staff shortages). However, any suggestion that nurses are doing this to improve patient care is disingenuous.
The INMO accepted the protections and pay benefits of the PSSA without accepting the obligations to adhere to the terms of the agreement. All forms of industrial action are precluded in respect of any matters covered by the PSSA, where the parties are acting in accordance with the terms of the
Agreement. The intention of the INMO to exploit public opinion for self-interest ignores the agreed mechanisms available to resolve this dispute without recourse to industrial action. It is critical that Government, as employer, ensures that a resolution is only found within the parameters of the agreement, given that other public sector unions will evaluate any potential to pursue consequential claims for the benefit of their members. The INMO want all 40,000 nurses to benefit from the outcome which is unreasonable and its pursuit of a 12% pay increase to bring them into line with other professionals, such as physiotherapists, would represent a reversion to the discredited relativity pay bargaining of the 1970s and the 1980s.
It is incredible that this dispute is threatened at a time of ‘peak uncertainty’ over Brexit. We know that Brexit will likely see income levels drop and unemployment rise. For those most at risk, a readjustment of wages could lead to redistribution of workers, impacting up to 20,000 Irish jobs across key sectors.
The ICTU has a key role in ensuring that its affiliate union, the INMO, honour its obligations under the PSSA. In recent years the ‘Oversight Body’ representing the parties to the PSSA agreement has played an important role and has a responsibility to engage with the parties to ensure compliance with the provisions of the Agreement. It should issue a statement confirming that this dispute is unnecessary and call for the procedures under the agreement to be utilised to bring about a resolution. The INMO should utilise those procedures and call off its threat of high-risk action. If they do not, the Body should state that if action were to proceed that it will be a breach of the PSSA.
Public servants will receive pay rises worth up to 7.4% under the PSSA, 2018-2020 (comparable to annualised increases of 2% to 2.5%). For those hired after 2013, the PSSA gains are more like 7-10%. The agreement has delivered real results to public servants and nurses themselves are benefiting from these increases. Overall, wages were stagnant in the private sector during the downturn as most employers cut jobs or working hours, with pay rises only having returned in the last few years. The recent deal on ‘pay restoration’ for up to 60,000 public sector workers, including nurses hired since 2011 represented a positive outcome for public sector unions, including the INMO. The deal costing €200m+, from March 2019 is worth an average of about €3,300 for those hired following the introduction of pay cuts back in 2010. The €20 million package of allowances targeted at areas experiencing the worst shortages to address recruitment and retention problems put forward by the Government in 2018 represented real progress. This followed the Public Service Pay Commission rejection of an argument for an across-the-board pay rise by the INMO.
In 2017, public pay and pensions stood at €20.7bn (CSO). Since 2014 it has grown by €2.3bn (12.6%) or by over three times that of other government spending (at 4%). Public sector pay makes up the bulk of current public expenditure and is a major contributor to business and personal costs. Public debt stands at around €201 bn (68% of GDP) in 2017 and is the third highest in the developed world. The public service, including our nurses do important work but we cannot afford a return to the past turmoil of public sector unions breaking open an already expensive public sector pay deal leading to a spiral of costly relativity claims.