Anne-Marie Walsh: 'If staff walk off wards, winning the public over to their side will be tough'
It's quite possible these threatened strikes by nurses will never happen. At the moment, it's easy to get caught up in the drama that usually comes with overwhelming ballots in favour of industrial action. But the endgame for the nursing unions is talks, to improve on a €20m offer that's already on the table.
There's a lot at stake. If they go ahead with their 24-hour stoppages, they will end up losing serious pay hikes. Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Paschal Donohoe's department has mentioned delaying pay rises due under an existing deal and an increment freeze. Now it's warning they will sacrifice their slice of a deal to end the two-tier pay system for recent recruits. This will not go down well with many members.
They've already been offered an olive branch of €20m and won't want to lose that either, and winning public sympathy for hospital strikes could be tough.
Donohoe appears to be taking a harder line than we've been used to. There's been a definite sense of the unions saying jump, and him asking how high. Remember the deal to end the threatened strike by gardaí that led to a pay rise for everyone in the public service audience? More recently he signed up to increases for recruits, although the current pay deal rules them out.
The nurses are not going to take the nuclear option of strikes unless they have to. What they're really looking for is a better offer that will apply to more of them.
The biggest problem for Donohoe is Fórsa's threat of knock-on claims. If he does loosen the purse strings again, taxpayers must be told why. Nobody's denying nurses are overworked and undervalued - but the Public Service Pay Commission found no justification for pay rises due to a retention crisis. If the nursing unions want them, they must prove this crisis exists. Otherwise, Donohoe's warning - that unaffordable pay rises become the savage pay cuts of tomorrow - may come back to bite him.