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Nurses on the picket line outside the Mater Hospital. Leah Farrell/

By all means stand with the nurses when they strike, but don't stand by when others do the same

Rightly or wrongly, valuable jobs do not automatically mean good pay or conditions.

WHEN NURSES WENT on strike across the country on Wednesday, there were reports that one out of every three cars that drove past were beeping. live feed from a picket outside the Mater Hospital had a little less beeping, but still a very considerable number of motorists showing solidarity.

Earlier this week, opinion polls on both and Claire Byrne Live put support for the nurses strike at about 75%.

Add to that the countless Stand with Nurses banners online and it’s clear to see that the INMO has a level of support among the public that’s unprecedented in recent years.

This is a positive step. The public standing in solidarity with people who want better pay and conditions is something that as a society we should applaud.

It does however shed more evidence on a growing trend that sees people deciding that some workers are entitled to strive for better when others are not.

It has somehow become acceptable for people unconnected to a given industry to decide what a group of workers in it should receive. And by extension, whether they should get a pay rise.

Contrast those poll figures with the 2016 Luas drivers dispute that had over 75% against the striking drivers.

This despite the fact that the company paying the Luas drivers is a multinational French company that last year had revenues of €6.6 billion. Not the public purse, as is the case with the nurses.

In fact, several arguments were made this week that praised the work of the nurses while for no reason denigrating that done by the Luas drivers.

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It’s not the first time either. During the Luas dispute, the drivers were disparagingly and misleadingly compared to others in the medical profession, this time junior doctors.

In the Dáil on Thursday, Ruth Coppinger TD accused the government of doing similar by “pitting workers against each other ” to “divide and conquer” industrial disputes.  

Tánaiste Simon Coveney denied that charge, suggesting Coppinger wanted to encourage more strikes. 

To be clear, this is not about comparing the work done by nurses and Luas drivers.

They are very different jobs and the public rightly places a great importance on the care provided by nurses and sees the conditions they work under. 

But this is about acknowledging a number of things.

The first is that rates of pay, rightly or wrongly, are not simply based on the value the public places on a particular job. Or even how difficult that work is.

Wages are also not set based on whether an individual or their chosen profession is seen as moral or good, or even whether the public places a high value on it.

As the recent survey of Irish executive pay showed, seven-figure salaries are frequently in the realm of banks, bookies and construction firms. Not exactly industries seen by the public as bastions of morality.

What’s more, wages are not set in proportion to the amount of time an individual spent in college either. Ask any PhD student.

Instead, pay is more likely to be based on the employer’s profits and the demand for the position in question.

And that latter point is the nurses’ primary argument in this dispute, that staff shortages have created a demand for their work that is not being met by adequate pay.

They’re probably right too such is the level of agency nursing and hospital overcrowding

Again, none of this is ideal but it is the reality.

And in acknowledging that reality it must also be accepted that any group of workers knows their own employment status better than anyone else.

And it’s for that reason that in any pay dispute those taking the action should at least be given a sympathetic ear. Not least because the improvement of pay standards is to everyone’s benefit. 

Stand with the nurses when they strike yes, but don’t stand by when others do the same.

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