Nurses in both the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation and the Psychiatric Nurses Organisation have voted by margins of 95% to go on strike.
The sheer scale of the majority indicates the depth of frustration against low pay and stress on the hospital wards.
But the government is using emergency legislation to threaten workers that it will remove their increments if they strike.
The use of the law to blackmail workers started with the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act (FEMPI) and has carried over into a new Public Service Pay and Pensions Act.
It represents an unprecedented attack on the right of workers to strike. Traditionally, governments have allowed workers to take action– without using the law, which they themselves often write, to penalise them. But not anymore.
This would not work, however, if unions stood together. Even if they disagree on particular tactics, unions should all stand up against legal blackmail.
Yet this is not what SIPTU is doing.
SIPTU is asking its members to cross the nurses’ picket – and is then hoping that nurses, who are frightened, will join their ranks.
There is a precedent for this. When the secondary teachers’ union, ASTI, democratically voted to stay outside a social partnership agreement, another union used provisions of the then FEMPI legislation to recruit members to their union.
The Department of Education and TUI collaborated together to say to young teachers that they would not gain permanency after two years if they were ASTI members. Others were asked if they were an ASTI member – and then denied an increment, if they were.
Despite its own anti-poaching rules– which stop workers transferring between unions– the ICTU turned a blind eye to TUI’s behaviour.
SIPTU is now playing a similar game and the reason is that it is effectively run by the Labour Party. However, the back-door collaboration will not work this time as many nurses will desert SIPTU. Blackmail will only intensify their determination and when they win, they can force the government to back off on its disgraceful threats.
SIPTU members in hospital should reject this ‘divide and rule’ game and respect the INMO strike.
But, more generally, it is now time to let workers join a union of their choice – and stop a government using legal blackmail when they do.