Source AP ©

Nurses plan national protest in showdown with government

Nurses of three Irish hospitals walked off work to prepare for a national protest later this week. They want to cut their work hours and increase pay.

The seven-week campaign by 45,000 nurses seeks a 10-percent pay raise and a reduction in the work week from 39 hours to 35. The nurses have been refusing to answer phones or keep computerized records of patients' care, exacerbating troubles in Ireland's chronically crowded and inefficient hospitals.

They have disrupted hospital operations further by mounting short walkouts in different locations, including Monday for three hours at two Dublin-area hospitals and one in Sligo, western Ireland, but insist they will do nothing to put patients' lives at risk.

The government Health Service Executive responsible for running the hospitals accused the nurses of jeoparding patients' care. It said about 300 operations and other treatments - sometimes involving patients on waiting lists for months - had to be canceled Monday because of the latest protests.

On Wednesday, nurses plan to walk off the job in every hospital and psychiatric health facility in the country for the first time since their protests began April 2. The Health Service Executive plans to retaliate Friday by starting to deduct 13 percent from the nurses' paychecks.

The government of Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, which is facing a tough re-election battle May 24, has ruled out meeting the nurses' demands, saying this would wreck a carefully negotiated national wage pact between the country's major employers and labor unions.

Since 1987, Ireland has pioneered the use of such pacts to control business costs and minimize strikes, a significant plank of the country's Celtic Tiger economy.

But the latest three-year deal, struck last year between unions and employers, is facing mounting opposition because the pay rises negotiated are not keeping pace with Ireland's rate of inflation, currently running at 5.1 percent, and its long-booming housing market.

Ahern has proposed appointing a foreign labor mediator to oversee talks between the two protesting unions, the Irish Nurses Organization and the Psychriatic Nurses Association. Leaders of both unions planned to discuss that idea Monday.

Nurses last went on strike briefly in March 2002, in the run-up to Ireland's last general election, to protest against chronic overcrowding in accident-and-emergency units.

A 10-day nursing strike in October 1999 ended with the government creating new, higher-paid ranks of senior nurses but agreeing no pay raise for most nurses.

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