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Our View: Firm stance needed on hospital strikes

Nurses discussing their demands with the Health Minister

STATE HOSPITALS will shut down for four hours from 7.30am today and will be manned by a skeleton staff. During these four hours, emergency cases will be diverted to private hospitals.

Today’s strike was called by nurses and other health workers, such as physiotherapists and operators of equipment, because a list of long-standing demands, including higher pay scales and entry level wages (that would cost the taxpayer €35m a year) had not been satisfied. Yesterday, hospital doctors also decided to join the strike while next Wednesday the hospital staff on hourly rates will also hold a work stoppage.

We suspect the latter would want to be hired on permanent contracts, which is also a demand of the nurses’ and doctors’ unions with regard to their colleagues on temporary contracts. For some time now, their unions have been claiming that hospitals were severely understaffed causing long waiting lists and putting members under a lot of pressure. This is an argument in support of the union demand for giving permanent jobs to contract staff.

Hospitals might be understaffed, but the unions’ remedy is completely wrong. By demanding higher entry level wages and higher pay scales, they would be making it more costly for the government to hire more staff. The rational thing would be to lower entry-level wages for nurses and doctors and put them on a shift system rather than give them overtime pay when they work after 2.30pm, as is the current costly practice.

This would be the answer to addressing staff shortages, but the truth is that the unions are using these to deflect attention away from their real agenda – across the board pay rises and permanent jobs for contract staff. And they are resorting to strikes because they want to achieve these objectives before the introduction of the National Health Scheme which would break up the unions’ ability to impose collective agreements, as each hospital would be an autonomous entity obliged to control its labour costs.

Today’s strike, which is certain to be repeated in the future, is a clear attempt by hospital workers to impose their diktats with regard to the Scheme on the government. The health minister gave in over another dispute a few months ago, and unions are now trying to exploit the weakness he displayed then.

President Anastasiades intervened telling the unions on Tuesday that this was not the time for pay rises and that their strike was unjustified. He felt aggrieved that hospital workers were inconveniencing the public despite the government’s assurances that their “interests would not be touched”. Anastasiades cannot understand that the reason the unions are behaving in this irresponsibly selfish way is because his government has been pandering to them.

Unions quite rightly perceive this as a weakness which they are determined to exploit to the full. And they will carry on with the same tune until the government stops pandering to them and begging them to behave reasonably. What is needed is a resolute stand by the president, who should make it clear that the government would never give in to union blackmail.

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