“Oh my God, I don’t want to go on strike.”
Michelle Kingston almost sounds incredulous. Speaking to RTÉ outside Cork University Hospital on the day before the action, she continued: “None of my colleagues do… But we have to go out tomorrow. It’s for the future.”
The main reasons that the nurses went on strike yesterday and will strike again is that they are underpaid and the hospitals are understaffed. Nurses and midwives striking outside Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda told LMFM that they are the lowest-paid public servants in the country. “We took pay cuts upon pay cuts upon pay cuts and now we just want what we deserve,” said an unidentified midwife.
They described the difficult working conditions; they don’t always have a spare minute to eat or even use the bathroom during a 12-hour shift.
The strike is part of an escalating campaign by the 6,000 members of the Psychiatric Nurses Association in response to the recruitment and retention crisis. Previous attempts to deal with this crisis have failed; the ‘Bring Them Home’ campaign last year, aimed at encouraging Irish nurses back from the UK, only brought in six new staff.
“We want to be the same as the rest of our colleagues in the public sector… We’re not asking for millions, just parity.”
The turn of phrase here is a little amusing because millions are what each of them would get if their funds went a billion euro over budget like the National Children’s Hospital may have. The cost of construction on the hospital could go as high as €2 billion, more than double the original planned budget. This, of course, is outrageous when placed next to the nurses’ pay issue; a small fraction of that money would. The true scale of the cost spiralling is unknown to the public; when department secretary general Jim Breslin was quizzed by Labour TD Alan Kelly on whether the costs would exceed €2 billion, Breslin gave a vague, non-committal answer and made no denial.
Today’s print edition of the Irish Independent reported on the strike only in terms of patients who have had their appointments cancelled as a result. A good counter to that ideological slant on the situation was given by orthopaedic surgeon Peter O’Rourke of Letterkenny Hospital (to be fair, the Indo also reported on this on their website), who argued that nurses’ wages have been too low for too long and that the nurses shouldn’t be subjected to “moral blackmail.
“The idea that surgery cancelled due to a short period of industrial action would actually make any significant difference is laughable.”
Over the last few days, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has tried to say that money ought not to be borrowed from anywhere else to fund an increase in nurse wages. He also claimed on Wednesday that the economic effects of Brexit and the backstop would prevent a pay increase. The opposition party leaders slammed him for this: Fianna Fáil’s Micheal Martin said that Varadkar was “in denial” about the poor retention and recruitment of nurses while Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald placed pressure upon him to “get off the side-lines and engage with the nurses.”
McDonald described the brief conversations she had with the strikers. “Nobody I spoke to this morning wanted to be on strike. In fact, it was the very last thing they wanted to be doing and they were upset to be on the picket.”
Meanwhile, Tánaiste Simon Coveney has indicated that the Government is planning to use sanctions against the nurses, including potentially docking their pay further, although no decision has been made yet.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Psychiatric Nurses Association General Secretary Peter Hughes said that there is a huge reliance on overtime in the mental health services. Because of this issue, part of the industrial action has been an overtime ban, which is continuing today.
Solidarity TD Ruth Coppinger visited several picket lines yesterday and voiced her support on social media. She expressed across several tweets her “full support for nurses and midwives… [there is] massive public support and disgust at Leo Varadkar’s continued neglect of our health service. Nurses’ and midwives’ pay claim is fully justified.”
Further action is planned, with the apparent climax being full strikes on 12th-14th February. More strike dates are expected to be announced today. At Our Lady of Lourdes, a midwife said, “We’ll be out here next week and the week after and the week after that. We have to keep going.”
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