Wednesday, 7 November 2018
I welcome the Minister of State to the Seanad. I raise this issue on the day 500 ambulance personnel refuse to work additional shifts. Hopefully, we can address the current industrial relations issues between the Psychiatric Nurses Association, PNA, National Ambulance Service Representative Association, NASRA, and the HSE. The situation is escalating with an increasing number of ambulance personnel taking industrial action. They are protesting the continuing refusal of the HSE to engage in negotiations with them when representing their interests or to make payroll deductions for union subscriptions. I was a member and branch secretary of the PNA in 2010 when this commenced. At that time, the union representing ambulance personnel members was SIPTU. In the years of austerity, the idea was to protect core pay with 24-7 workers accepting that shift work, Christmas work, night duty, Easter work and so on would be foregone. They would agree not to fight for that. We marched in 2010 down Parnell Street in what was termed the "24/7 alliance", which included gardaí, soldiers, nurses, ambulance personnel and firefighters. From that came a request by 500 ambulance and paramedic personnel to join the PNA. While it seemed a bit strange at the time, it has worked well. The ambulance personnel believed the PNA would stand up for them and protect their shifts and allowance instead of only core pay.
The current dispute commenced on 10 October and there was a protest last week outside Dr. Steevens' Hospital, which is the location of the headquarters of the HSE. The HSE is refusing to recognise this branch, give it powers to negotiate terms and conditions and take union subscriptions directly from members' pay. Mr. Peter Hughes is the general secretary of NASRA and Ms Sinead McGrath is the national chair. The refusal of the HSE to engage with ambulance personnel or facilitate payroll deduction of union subscriptions amounts to nothing short of an effort to dictate to which union ambulance personnel should belong and to frustrate the continued development of the NASRA branch. There is no law to stop people joining the union of their choice. However, the HSE has put down the blocks and refused to allow the PNA to represent the members of NASRA. I plead with the Minister of State to get involved and to get the HSE to the table to recognise the rights of union members, including the right to negotiate on terms and conditions of employment.
I thank the Senator for the opportunity to address this matter. I confirm that the HSE received formal notification, dated 18 September 2018, from the general secretary of the PNA that its ambulance personnel members had voted in favour of taking industrial action. This action began on 10 October 2018. It is important to make it clear to the House that NASRA, which has affiliated with the PNA, is not recognised by the HSE. This means it does not have negotiating rights for ambulance personnel. The PNA, which is a non-ICTU affiliated union, has negotiating rights for nurses working in the psychiatry and intellectual disability sectors. The union recognised by the HSE for ambulance grades is SIPTU.
The industrial action referred to relates to two issues. The first is a dispute over the automated deduction of union subscriptions from members' pay. The HSE is refusing to facilitate payroll deductions at source of union subscriptions to NASRA as it does not recognise this group. The second issue is a refusal by the HSE to engage in negotiations with the PNA or to recognise it as a union representing ambulance personnel members. The HSE deducts subscriptions at source for those ambulance staff who are members of SIPTU. It should be noted that the facilitation of deductions at source is not a legal right, but is rather a concession granted to recognised unions. While individuals have a right to be members of any trade union, they do not have the right to have such membership facilitated or recognised by their employers.
Phase 1 of the action saw the unions involved use alleged health and safety concerns to advance their industrial action.Phase 1 of the action involved the unions using alleged health and safety concerns to advance their industrial action. This included a range of measures, including the standing down of vehicles which fail daily inspections and vehicles not in compliance with health and safety legislation. Under normal circumstances, rather than simply standing these vehicles down, ambulance personnel would be expected to take such action as necessary to ensure that they enter service as soon as possible.
The HSE has received further notification from NASRA members of their intention to escalate this industrial action from today, 7 November. NASRA members have advised that they will not make themselves available for additional shifts outside their rostered hours. This is in addition to the industrial action that is already under way.
I can confirm that the National Ambulance Service is monitoring the situation closely and has put contingency plans in place to mitigate the risk of any potential disruption to service. It is a key priority for me to ensure that there is no disruption to this fundamental front-line service as a result of this dispute.
I thank the Minister of State. If it is not a legal right, is it illegal to join a union of one's choice? It seems this is a dogfight, with SIPTU and the HSE cosily together on one side and, on the other, up to 500 members who have decided that they do not want to belong to that representative body and they have asked other people to represent them. They have represented them hundreds of times in industrial relations processes and grievances. The winter is approaching and we cannot afford 500 members of the paramedic and the ambulance crews to be out of service. We cannot afford it for the people. It is the last thing they want to do.
The real question is where is the freedom of an individual to decide that if a particular section or staff representative is not representing the person adequately and if so they can move to where they feel they will be represented. The figure of 500 is en masse. That is a large number of ambulance personnel to move.
The Senator asked a very direct question on whether, if it is not a legal right, it is illegal to join a union of one's choice. No it is not illegal. There is no corollary between the two. There are many things that do not involve a legal right but that are not illegal. It does not go hand in hand in any sphere and is not specific to what the Senator detailed.
I can only repeat what is the HSE's position, which is already on the record of the House. Anybody is entitled to join any union he or she wants. The area of subscription deduction is a concessionary aspect and is done on the basis of goodwill by the HSE with unions that are recognised. Other than repeating the HSE position, I am afraid I cannot bring any more clarity to the matter.