Nurses strike against proposed wage structure

Nurses in Portugal went on strike on 27–29 January 2010 against the wage system proposal presented by the Ministry of Health, which trade unions consider a ‘humiliation for the nurses’. According to the unions, the government proposal does not compensate those in transition to the new career, limits the possibility to reach the top of the career and aims to decrease the monthly wage of those who start nursing from €1,020 to €995 for the next four years.

Background

On 30 July 2009, all of the trade unions representing nurses and the Ministry of Health (Ministério da Saúde) of the then socialist government reached an agreement on a new career scheme. The agreement was considered a success insofar as it followed a long period of intense and prolonged conflicts between the trade unions and the government (PT0902039I). The agreement answered one of the nurses’ main demands – for a single uni-category career applicable to all nurses in the public sector, regardless of their legal basis of employment.

On 22 September 2009, two decrees were published – No. 247/2009 and No. 248/2009 – stipulating the career path for nurses, applicable to those with contracts with public enterprise entities (entidades públicas empresariais, EPEs) and private-public partnership companies (parcerias público-privadas, PPPs) and with contracts on public sector functions (PT0809039I). Issues such as the wage structure and the transition to the new career were to be discussed separately later.

Talks on wage structure and transition scheme

The negotiation of these issues started on 7 September 2009. On the eve of the second round of talks, on 18 September 2009, the trade unions organised a demonstration against the government proposals, which – according to the unions – did not take into account the equity between nurses and other professionals with a university degree, and did not include any recovery of wages. The negotiations were interrupted for the general parliamentary elections on 27 September 2009.

The socialist minority government that came to power on 26 October reopened, on 26 November, the negotiations on the wage structure and transitions to the new career, with a new proposal. However, the trade unions considered that the Ministry of Health’s new proposal was ‘humiliating’ for three main reasons:

  • the wage structure does not take into account the nurses’ professional competences, especially those of the nurse in charge (enfermeiro principal), who is responsible for the management of the hospital’s main services. The proposal does not consider the upgrading of wages of nurses who are in transition to the new career, which requires greater competence and qualification;
  • it prevents nurses from reaching the position of nurse supervisor, which is the top career position, by setting quotas that limit access to that position to only 10% of nurses;
  • the monthly salary of those who start a career as a nurse is to decrease from €1,020 to €995 for the next four years, whereas any other graduate employee in the public sector starts their career with a monthly wage of €1,200.

Strike action

Therefore, after an unsuccessful period of negotiations, the trade union front integrating four nurses’ trade unions announced, on 13 January 2010, a three-day strike to take place on 27–29 January. The four trade unions represented in the alliance are the Union of Portuguese Nurses (Sindicato dos Enfermeiros Portugueses, SEP), the Nurses’ Trade Union of the Autonomous Region of Madeira (Sindicato dos Enfermeiros da Região Autónoma da Madeira, SERAM), the Trade Union of Nurses (Sindicato dos Enfermeiros, SE) and the Independent Union of Nurses (Sindicato Independente Profissionais de Enfermagem, SIPE).

The trade unions estimated that 90%–95% of the nurses went on strike on the first day, while the Ministry of Health calculated a lower percentage of 77%. On the second day of the strike, the Ministry of Health estimated a participation rate of about 83%. According to the Vice-president of SEP, Guadalupe Simões, the overall participation during the three days was around 88%. On the last day, between 10,000 and 15,000 nurses answered the call from the trade unions, participating in the national demonstration which started near the headquarters of the Ministry of Health and ended close to the headquarters of the Ministry of Finance and Public Administration (Ministério das Finanças e da Administração Pública).

In the aftermath of the strike and the demonstration, which the trade unions considered as the largest movement of nurses since 1976, the President of SEP, José Carlos Martins, declared: ‘The Minister of Health has already mentioned that negotiations will restart, with the hope of reaching an agreement.’

Maria da Paz Campos Lima, Dinâmia

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