As British health unions consider taking industrial action over pay and the state of the NHS, some 40,000 Irish nurses and midwives are in their third week of industrial action.
The members of the Irish Nurses Organisation (INO) and the Psychiatric Nurses Association (PNA) are taking part in a series of escalating work stoppages and a national work to rule.
The stoppages – a rolling programme of short walk-outs at different hospitals – show that it is possible to organise a national campaign of strike action among nurses.
One member of the INO told Socialist Worker, “Nurses want a 35 hour week.
“We are the only qualified group in Irish hospitals to work 39 hours. We simply want parity with other grades such as radiographers, dieticians who work 35 hours or some clerical workers who work 33.
“We also want a 10 percent pay rise. Nurses have found that they are earning 3,000 euros less than other care workers.
“The Irish health service is in a shocking state because of the policies of successive right wing governments.
“Instead of developing a public service where everyone is treated according to their needs, Ireland has a system where money and health insurance influences access to services.
“The case of a cancer sufferer who will die because she did not get a colonoscopy at the same time as someone with health insurance has recently shocked the country.
“To cut taxes, particularly for the wealthy, the right wing parties reduced spending on health.
“From 1970 to 1996, Ireland invested on health, on average each year, 63 percent of the European Union average.
“To make matters worse, the health minister Mary Harney is trying to create a US-style system of privatised health.
“Private hospitals are being built on the grounds of public hospitals with tax breaks that amount to 40 percent of their capital costs.
“Some public patients will be sent to these hospitals under National Treatment Purchase Fund but the state will be charged a higher fee than if they were treated in public hospitals. ‘High complexity cases’ will also be looked after by the public sector.
“The result is that investment that should have been put into looking after the public health service will be siphoned off for private profit.
“The crisis in the health service has increased the stress and pressure on front line staff.
“Some 70 percent of Irish nurses leave the hospitals within three years of qualifying. One in two overseas nurses don’t renew their contract after two years.
“Our dispute is important not just for nurses. Ireland has social partnership agreements with all the unions. The teachers’ unions for instance have come out in support of the nurses and want the national agreement renegotiated.
“The right wing Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat government wants to break the will of the nurses.
“In a disgraceful move, it has awarded a 3 percent pay rise to nurses who are not members of the INO and PNA, while we have been offered nothing.
“Throughout the work to rule INO and PNA members are working as normal and are providing the full range of nursing/midwifery care to patients and clients.
“We are refusing to do clerical, administrative and IT duties, attend non-vital meetings and telephone work – except that deemed essential on clinical grounds. There is a ban on opening/securing all community-based buildings and facilities.
“Withdrawing the unpaid labour that thousands of nurses and midwives do everyday is having a big impact.
“The strength of the campaign is that it takes place in the run up to a general election. There is huge public and trade union support for the nurses and midwives.
“The difficulty is that, because of their concern for patient care, the INO and PNA are reluctant to escalate the action. But this will be needed if we are to win.”