National nurses strike averted as pay offer is accepted

Ireland's 26,000 nurses have recently accepted an IEP 85 million pay package, thus narrowly averting threatened industrial action.

Nurses had threatened industrial action on 10 February 1997 in pursuit of a claim for a major overhaul in their pay structures and an improved early retirement scheme. However, the action was called off when the nurses accepted an IEP 85 million formula drawn up by the Labour Court, which includes the creation of a commission which will examine a range of issues related to the nursing profession. Four trade unions representing over 26,000 nurses were involved in the dispute, the largest being the 16,000-strong Irish Nurses Organisation (INO).

The settlement terms were a considerable improvement on earlier offers made to the nurses. An opening offer from health service management of IEP 20 million, made just over a year ago, was increased to IEP 37 million in April 1996 before an agreed special adjudication process produced a formula costed at IEP 50 million last Autumn. However, the adjudication finding was rejected by a majority of nurses, who went against formal recommendations by the various union executives in favour of the terms .

With a strike due to commence on 10 February, the Chair of the Labour Court, Evelyn Owens, issued a recommendation which resulted in a deferral of the threatened industrial action. On this occasion, the union executives issued no formal recommendations to the members. The outcome was acceptance by a majority of around two to one.

The settlement terms raise the new maximum salary of a staff nurse from IEP 18,000 per annum to IEP 21,000. Almost 60% of all nurses are at staff nurse level and almost half of these have reached the top of their scale and thus automatically benefit from this increase. For nurses below the maximum, the pay scale was shortened, yielding increases of between 6.5% and 11.5% at each point on the existing nine-point scale. These increases are exclusive of the 39-month, 9.25% pay increase, concluded as part of Ireland's latest three -year economic and social programme - Partnership 2000. Retirement at the age of 55, after 35 years service, will also be available to 200 nurses a year.

Meanwhile, in a move considered crucial to the nurses accepting the overall Labour Court package, the Court proposed that a commission be established to look at a number of long-standing grievances. The essential aim of the commission, to be chaired by JusticeMella Carrol of the High Court, is that it should provide a secure basis for the further professional development of the profession in the context of anticipated changes in the health services, their organisation and delivery.

The outcome came as a relief to the Government which faces an election this year. Serious concerns have been expressed about the possible "knock-on" implications of the settlement. The terms come under the ambit of the 1994-96 national agreement, the Programme for Competitiveness and Work (PCW), which was followed recently by Partnership 2000. The settlement, however, exceeds the terms of the PCW, a fact that has been noted by groups of public servants who have yet to conclude outstanding PCW pay matters. And others, such as the police (the Garda), a group directly related to nurses in pay terms, may attempt to secure a similar package in the context of Partnership 2000.

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