The nurses strike in the South has been one of the most popular strikes in recent times. Rebel interviewed Jo Tully, theatre nurse and trade union activist in St. James’s Hospital Dublin, about the significance of the strike.
Rebel: The nurses strike in the South has made trade unions, after years of falling in behind austerity, seem relevant again. What do you think it was that drove nurses to lead on this one?
Jo: In a word – desperation; conditions have become impossible! We have a recruitment and retention crisis. This means we work on a daily basis with way below our staffing levels – sometimes below 50% of the staffing numbers we are supposed to have. This makes for a very stressful day!
On top of this, we have more acutely ill patients. They should be in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) or High Dependence Units (HDU) but because of the shortage of such beds these patients are often transferred out to main wards. This piles more stress on to already understaffed wards. Nurses face increasing patient acuity on day-shifts with 3 or 4 nurses on the ward, when it should be 6! When you call management to insist that this is impossibly unsafe, you are informed that nothing can be done. “There are no nurses so just do your best and get on with it.”
Adding insult to injury is the fact that during the austerity years, pay was slashed, working hours lengthened and overtime cut. Nurses have felt abandoned by both management AND their union. They have borne the brunt of utterly chaotic conditions in a health service that is rapidly deteriorating. Now, the anger has built up and our trade union leadership has been forced to listen.
There have been endless local ballots for action and at least 3 national ballots for strike over the last 2 years with increasing frustration at the leadership’s refusal to implement action. When the last strike was pulled just days before the strike was to begin in February last year, Liam Doran, INMO leader for over 20 years, effectively had to resign, such was the anger.
Rebel: Many of the striking nurses were young women recently out of college. How much do you think the movement for Repeal influenced them?
Jo: It’s difficult to know. The INMO’s position on ‘Repeal’ was disgraceful; in deference to those who held ‘pro-life’ views it refused to take a position. 90% of nurses are women. I know that many nurses, in particular young nurses, were involved in the Repeal Movement. The INMO’s position highlighted the clash between the old outdated catholic ethos that was so deeply rooted in the INMO and the new realities facing young women who will no longer accept church control of their bodies and their sex lives. The fact, I think, that the official position was so at odds with the overwhelming ‘pro-choice’ view of young people, highlighted the lack of involvement, on an active level, of young nurses in the INMO.
Rebel: SIPTU came out openly and called for its members to pass the pickets. It has done this before but maybe not so openly. Has SIPTU lost members over this?
Jo: Yes, SIPTU’s position has been disgraceful and it most definitely has lost members over this. But it also lost credibility with SIPTU members who are not nurses but could see clearly their union’s anti-strike/scab position. Many SIPTU members came to me to express their shock and disgust at their union’s position.
Rebel: How do you explain the fact that the union leadership of the INMO on this occasion listened to its members, at least about coming out on strike?
Jo: They were under pressure as I’ve said. Also, I do think that the fact that our new leader is a woman is interesting in the sense that the idea of a man leading a largely women’s trade union no longer sat well with nurses. I think that the fact that Phil O ‘Shea is a woman, but also worked for many years as a nurse gave nurses a lot of confidence.
Rebel: What is the response to deal that was made at the WRC? Why are you calling for a no vote?
Jo: The essential demand was parity with allied health professionals, and we have not won that. For instance, this deal obliges us to continue to work a 39-hour week, the so-called Haddington Road Hours, while our allied health professional work at most 37 hours per week. Nor have we achieved pay parity.
While gains have been made, certainly for the very junior young graduates, there is a bit of ‘smoke and mirrors’ because what has been gained at the beginning of incremental ladder is actually not maintained to the end of the scale. By skipping some increment points of the scale, young graduates will do much better than before for the next 4 or 5 years. But, from midpoint of the scale upwards the gains are minimal. Overall, the gain to the staff nurse scale is only €1,500 a year, at the top of the scale – and that’s before tax!
The promotional grades, roughly about 25% of nurses, have been offered nothing bar a promise of a review of their roles and value, to be completed within 6 to 8 months. There is no guarantee of any pay increases but any pay rise that might come out of that will be implemented, (and then possibly only in stages) subject to our signing up to the next 3-year partnership pay agreement in 2021.
The only real gain that has been made is that the location/qualification allowances up to now available only to specialist areas, have now been spread to the surgical and medical ward areas. This is a real gain of between €2,200 and €3,350. But even this will not counter the retention and recruitment crisis.
This deal is causing much anger and disappointment as well as confusion and up to this weekend it was hard to say whether it would be accepted.
Rebel: The news this week is that the new contract will contain unacceptable changes to conditions. Does this mean that this deal will fall?
Jo: Embedded in this new agreement is a new contract. This new contract was leaked last weekend to the press and is now revealed as unacceptable. The contract will require nurses to be prepared to be deployed wherever they are needed, even if this means beginning one shift in one place and ending it somewhere else.
The problems the health service lie in the fact that it is two-tier and highly inefficient, with a private health service piggybacking on a public one. The government, because it is committed to privatisation, wants to run a mile from any real change. The new contract has highlighted just how much the government/HSE literally wants to work the nurses into the ground.
They may just have overreached themselves. It looks as though their proposed work ultra-flexible work regime has triggered outrage, from the INMO but also other unions. Who knows we may be into further strike days. At the very least, this deal looks as though it is dead in the water.
Rebel: Women make up 70% of public sector workers and they have been hardest hit by austerity. They are coming to the fore in strikes both in the Europe and the US. Do you think the same thing is happening here?
Jo: Yes, I do. I think the nurses strike is just the opening act in the coming war for, not just ‘equal pay’, but for pay justice and I think that women workers will lead this. The active participation and mass turnout on our picket lines, together with the role of the strike committees on the ground, was a sign of this. We have recently seen similar types of pickets in West Virginia, USA, by striking teachers, most of them women too.
Rebel: You are a People before Profit candidate in these upcoming elections. Why?
Jo: There are not enough active trade unionists involved in local politics, and even fewer women trade unionists. We need their voice in councils and in the Dáil. Also, for me, I think that socialist politics helps you see beyond your own job and see the connections with other struggles. It keeps you focussed on reaching out to other struggles and building solidarity – which I see as key to winning strikes.