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Irish government suspends electricians from payroll

How many electricians are needed to change a light bulb? 

Ireland's major labor union for electricians has ordered members to lay down their tools in several hospitals because the government's Health Service Executive has authorized maintenance workers to change light bulbs.

Hospital-contracted electricians began refusing to do work in July, arguing that the hospital needed to negotiate new terms and conditions for their lightbulb-changing expertise following the installation of new lighting fixtures.

The dispute worsened this week when electricians withdrew backup for potential losses of power at two hospitals - needed to keep patients' dialysis and life-support machines running. The Health Service Executive suspended 20 electricians from the payroll Tuesday and a similar number Wednesday.

"This action has resulted in an unacceptable risk to our services," said Barry O'Brien, the executive's assistant national director of human resources. He said operations in one hospital were canceled Wednesday because a stable flow of power could not be guaranteed.

"We have taken every step possible to avoid the situation we now find ourselves in but, equally, we have now been left with no alternative but to remove members of staff from the payroll as they are refusing to carry out their full range of duties under their contract of employment," O'Brien said.

He said electricians wanted to keep charging bloated overtime rates when lights burn out at night.

But the electricians say the exact rules of light bulb-changing, and all other electrical work, needs to be spelled out in a new "protocol" agreed with the help of an outside arbitrator. The Health Service Executive says that is nonsense.

Owen Wills, general secretary of the Technical, Engineering and Electrical Union, said his members also were owed back pay because raises have been delayed or withheld during earlier chapters of the dispute.

"This is nothing to do with light bulbs. It's about the need for a third party to help us agree a protocol. We did not agree to have a protocol imposed on us," he said.

The two sides have been arguing about light bulb-changing rights since 2001. Ireland's Labor Court heard their arguments in March and ruled that electricians should accept that they are not needed to change run-of-the-mill light bulbs, while the most sophisticated and hard-to-reach light bulbs should continue to be replaced only by electricians.

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