35,000 nurses and midwives joined a 24-hour national strike on Wednesday with more action planned for next week, reports Eóin Ó Murchú
In December 2018, the Irish Nurses and Midwives organisation balloted their members to go on strike. This was in light of a public sector pay agreement that would allow for incremental increases in pay for nurses working in Ireland. As it stands at the minute, nurses are the lowest earning degree graduates in the healthcare system. The ballot was returned at 95% in favour of strike action, an overwhelming backing for radical strike action. Striking is seen as the only way to combat the retention issue for Irish nursing staff and to alleviate the ailing health service that's trembling under the weight of its failures to patients.
In a 2018 survey of final year student nurses, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation - INMO showed that 71% were seriously considering emigration following their graduation from college. In September 2016, a Union of Students in Ireland (USI) survey of nursing students revealed that 93% of respondents had considered or were considering moving abroad for work.
When these figures are investigated, the most pressing reason for emigration is pay, with concerns about under-staffing in hospitals second place and then hours.
The median Registered Nurse earns just over €30,000 per year. Recent statistics from the housing agencies report the average Dublin house price as €370,000. The biggest mortgage a single nurse on €30k p.a. could qualify for is therefore €127,000. It would take the pay of three nurses (or a single TD or half a Taoiseach (prime minister)!) to qualify for the average mortgage in Dublin. Renting is also a major issue for nurses with the average rent in Dublin in December estimated to be €1,620 per month. The cost of living makes it next to impossible for nurses to stay in Ireland.
In addition to pay, conditions in hospitals are appalling. Our health service is crumbling, chronically under-resourced and woefully underfunded. This month we hit a new high of 541 patients on trolleys in hospitals across the country. There are over 1,000,000 people on waiting lists for appointments, and the government pays a fortune through the National Treatment Purchase Fund to get public patients seen by private doctors, often in suites in public hospitals. Nurses and indeed doctors and other health workers are being tasked with soul-crushing work that constantly puts themselves and patients in danger. Despite our best efforts, the system continues to lurch on and deteriorate. Health workers are being dealt a terrible hand and patients suffer.
Student nurses too feel the brunt of this unfair system. Nursing students are worked to the bone for no pay while in college. They have responsibilities and perform tasks that nurses would otherwise perform, for no pay. The mandatory 20 weeks of placement in 3rd year amounts to roughly 700 hours – this is just one year of four. These intense hours often preclude any possibility of working outside of placement time, and meagre grants make nursing school a real material struggle for thousands of student nurses. This is disgraceful. Student nurses should be paid a living wage.
As socialists, we realise we must work within trade unions as suffocating as this may feel at times. Trade union law in Ireland is very sclerotic and restrictive. The advent of social partnership in the early 1990s has made meaningful industrial action impossible, to the boon of employers and the state. But the current mandate for strike must be embraced. At the minute, the interests of radicals, workers, and the INMO leadership are in tandem. The INMO knows if it loses this dispute, the union is finished. Between the financial penalties the government will impose and the mass walkout of its members, the nurses are in a fight for basic dignity in the workplace.
It is in this atmosphere we must hone in and utilise public support for the nurses strike which, despite state media attempts to portray otherwise, is unwavering and offers uncritical support to the nurses. Indeed during the first strike day, the state broadcaster RTE only concentrated on 'patient safety' concerns. This deliberate obfuscation ignored the demands of the nurses and served to demonise a strike action that had organised emergency contingency plans for patient care.
Other healthcare unions should use this opportunity to raise their grievances and put pressure on the government. Already this month ambulance drivers have gone out on strike and next week GPs plan a national demonstration in front of the Dáil. Public meetings are being hosted by leading socialists like Richard Boyd Barrett and are attended by INMO union leaders. These are scenarios previously thought unthinkable, but the dynamics of class struggle unravels the contradictory nature of capitalist relations. This is the government's biggest fear: a united and organised workers' movement.
With this all in mind, it is absolutely crucial that we get behind the nurses and midwives strike. We must publicly support it and where we can, we should help those on strike in whatever way they need.
The first day of strikes went ahead on Wednesday with two more planned next week. Emergency care was provided and elective procedures cancelled. Morale was strong on the picket lines and there is an atmosphere of hope.
The government's feet are in concrete on the matter, however. There needs to be a call for a mass rally by trade unions and all political parties to demonstrate on the Dáil in the coming weeks while public support is strong.
The government will crack down on this dissent and fine nurses IF they lose. But the public are completely behind the nurses and the union membership has never been so radical. The sitting government is also being supported by Fianna Fail who are conscious of their traditional working/middle class vote, but they are not as strong as the media portrays. The HSE has also been a constant bugbear for the government and this dispute is a conduit through which many grievances can be expressed. There have been too many victories for the necktie austerity elite since 2008. Public support has never been as high for strike action. The nurses can win this, and trigger an avalanche of pay claims that can collapse this neoliberal nightmare government.
Victory to the nurses! Uppa nurses!
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