Nurses secure reduced working hours but no pay rise

A 14-week dispute by nurses over pay and working hours was resolved in May 2007, after the management of the Health Service Executive and trade unions agreed to a compromise put forward by the social partners’ dispute resolution organisation, the National Implementation Body (NIB). The trade unions representing nurses have been successful in reducing weekly working time but pay will remain unchanged.

The outcome of the recent dispute by around 40,000 nurses leaves the public service pay benchmarking process unchanged, while the nurses have secured a commitment to reduce their working week by one and a half hours by 2008 on a ‘cost-neutral’ basis. The nurses’ dispute mostly took the form of a work-to-rule protest, while temporary walk-outs were implemented by nurses using a rota system throughout the country’s hospital (IE0702029I).

Trade union demands

Two trade unions were involved in the dispute, the Irish Nurses Organisation (INO), which represents the majority of nurses in Irish hospitals, and the smaller Psychiatric Nurses Association (PNA). Two other unions representing nurses, the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU) and the Irish Municipal Professional and Civil Trade Union (IMPACT), were not involved in the dispute.

The INO and the PNA demanded a definite commitment to a timetable for the introduction of a 35-hour working week, down from the current 39 hours. In addition, they wanted a 10% pay rise for nurses on top of increases provided for under the current national wage agreement in the social partnership programme, Towards 2016 (2.9Mb PDF). The unions had decided some time ago not to cooperate with the Public Service Benchmarking Body (PSBB), which is the organisation that follows a pay mechanism agreed by the social partners to align public sector pay movements with relevant areas of the private sector.

Response to demands

The responses of the employer, the Health Service Executive (Feidhmeannacht na Seirbhíse Sláinte, HSE), and the Minister for Health and Children, Mary Harney, were emphatic: any pay claims could only be considered within the ambit of the benchmarking process agreed to by all other public sector trade unions. The issue of a reduced working week for nurses could be examined in light of the needs of the health service going forward and on a cost-neutral basis. A separate claim for a pay rise for a small group of care workers affected by an acknowledged pay anomaly could be negotiated, however, as long as it had no impact beyond the small group concerned. A subsequent Labour Court ruling endorsed this overall position.

Industrial action and outcome

The two unions rejected this approach and opted for a dispute that involved work-to-rule tactics in the build-up to the recent Irish general election held on 24 May 2007, with a timetable for more intensive industrial action to be rolled out if the HSE management refused to make concessions. Several efforts were made by the National Implementation Body (NIB) to resolve the impasse, and it was only during the week before the general election that the unions were persuaded to accept a one-and-a-half-hour reduction in the working week, while agreeing that their pay claim would, after all, have to be considered within the benchmarking system.

The final NIB proposals (15.2KB PDF) adopted a two-phased approach to the overall claim for a 35-hour week. In relation to the first phase, it was the NIB’s view that an initial reduction from 39 to 37.5 hours by 1 June 2008 must be implemented on a cost-neutral basis and without diminution of service to patients.

As part of the proposals, given that the Towards 2016 pay agreement has not been accepted by the two unions, the terms of this agreement would have to be put before their respective members. Towards 2016 provides for a 10% pay increase over 27 months based on the cost of living, which is quite separate from any benchmarking awards. A performance verification group (PVG) for health will consider whether payment of these basic increases laid down in the social partnership programme can be made, as the agreement insists on cooperation with normal ongoing change.

The dispute was intensely watched by other public service unions, most of whom were anxious that the government would hold firm on the pay claim as they are committed to the benchmarking process.


Following the agreement on the reduced working week, follow-on claims by other public sector workers are expected. The government’s attitude to such claims will be guided by whether they impact on costs and quality of service.

Meanwhile, the agreed Forum on Health Service Modernisation, which was the brainchild of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), may now come into play. The social partners consider that such a forum may have the potential to stabilise industrial relations in the healthcare sector and help achieve much needed reform, but was put into cold storage during the nurses’ dispute.

Brian Sheehan, IRN Publishing

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