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Our View: Union power over public hospitals needs to be reined in

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File photo: Nurses demonstrate over safety concerns (CNA)

Nursing union Pasyno has called a 12-hour strike on Monday by its members to report health minister Constantinos Ioannou for “interference in the right to union action, for a hostile stance against the nurses and for punitive measures against nurses of the Athalassa Hospital who had complied with decisions of their union.”

What the issue boiled down to was that five nurses at the Athalassa psychiatric hospital, had refused to treat an inmate that was suffering from Covid-19 on instructions from their union. While the union considers this dereliction of duty legitimate industrial action, Ioannou saw it differently, ordering a disciplinary investigation against the five nurses, a move that could lead to punitive measures being imposed.

Now the members of Pasyno – not all nurses belong to this union – have threatened a strike in order to stop the disciplinary procedure, on the laughable grounds that this was a case of industrial action, which quite clearly it was not. Five nurses had refused to take care of a patient suffering from Covid at Athalassa, because this was what their union told them to do, for reasons that have not been made clear. In the event, the patient was treated by nurses not belonging to a union.

The idea that some union official, randomly telling his members not to do the work they had been assigned, was exercise of union rights, is preposterous. Are union officials in charge of the operation of a hospital? Do they have the authority to decide which patient should be treated and who should be left without treatment, as punishment of the hospital administration for its supposed failings?

The sad fact is that public sector union bosses believe they can do whatever they like because nobody dares stand up to them. On the very rare occasions that someone does, he or she eventually backs down because the politicians will take the side of the union. This has fuelled the arrogance of the union bosses, who act as if they are the highest authority and a law unto themselves. And if someone challenges this illegitimate power, as Ioannou has done by initiating disciplinary procedure, then he becomes a target, accused of showing no respect for union rights and similar nonsense.

These rights must have limits, which is why it is vital for the health minister not to back down, even if Pasyno threatens a 48-hour strike. It must be made clear to the unions (doctors’ and nurses’) that they don’t own the public hospitals and they cannot take executive decisions or set rules. If the government genuinely wants to hospitals to become autonomous entities, it has to limit union power and winning the dispute with the nurses would be a start.

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