The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation is to ballot members for strike action if they do not secure substantial improvements in their pay.
Delegates at the INMO's annual conference in Cork voted unanimously to back a motion mandating the executive council to ballot members on whatever proposals emerge from a Public Service Pay Commission review of recruitment and retention issues in nursing and midwifery which is due next month, and from subsequent negotiations with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
If members reject that outcome, the union will immediately ballot for industrial action up to and including strike action.
The motion also voiced concern about a Public Service Pay Commission survey of nurses and midwives which was carried out without consultation with the INMO, and in which only one question out of 44 focused on pay.
During the debate, delegates complained that nurses starting on €28,700 were the lowest paid professional grade in the public service.
They also voiced anger about earning less than allied health professionals like physiotherapists, who also have a shorter working week.
INMO President Martina Harkin Kelly said the narrative had been that they were "good girls, great little girls, lovely cailíns" - but they could not live on admiration, as it does not pay the bills.
General Secretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha was applauded when she told delegates that the Government would have to make provision in the estimates later this year to correct the nursing pay anomaly across the scale.
She also rejected suggestions that granting pay rises to nurses and midwives to address the recruitment and retention issue would trigger knock on claims.
She said that the way in which public service pay negotiations are conducted might have to be reviewed - because if the procedures they were going through could not correct a pay anomaly for the lowest paid professional grade, then what were they about.
The proposer said pay parity with therapeutic grades was long overdue.
She said the recruitment moratorium had inflicted long term damage but had failed to save the exchequer one red cent.
She said the tap had been opened somewhat but the hole in the bucket had not been plugged, adding that it was abundantly clear that the staffing shortages could not be addressed without pay.
She said that if the procedures let nurses and midwives down, they would mobilise collectively.
She said they knew the road that needs to be taken, and they would take it without hesitation to obtain parity of pay with other health care professionals.
Margaret Frahill said the 39-hour working week for Irish nurses was longer than in other countries.
She said a nurse earning €22.25 pher hour in Ireland would earn €30 in Australia.
She cited an anomaly where Health Care Assistants who report to nurses can earn more than the nurses to whom they report.
She noted that the HSE had spent €10.3 million in 2016 to recruit nurses from overseas, without whom wards could not be staffed.
She noted that of 1500 student nurses due to graduate this year, over 70% are already considering emigrating.
She said nurses had been patient, but if the problem was not addressed, there would be no Irish nurses working in the profession.
She received a standing ovation when she said the message to Health Minister Simon Harris was invest now or reap the rewards.
Student nurse Ethan O’Riordan noted that a recent survey had found that 79% of student nurses said increasing pay would be an incentive to keep them in Ireland.
Jo Tully Branch was applauded when she urged the leadership to understand that nurses were ready to take action.
Sandra Morton said they had had "mansplaining", and were now having "PSPC-splaining in a condescending tone".
Siobhan O'Brien said it was inconceivable that some without a professional qualification could be on a higher pay grade that the nurse who is accountable when things go wrong.
Eilis Fitzgerald warned Minister for Finance Public Expenditure and Reform Paschal Donohoe that he had better deliver the Public Service Pay Commission, adding "we are not the little quiet ladies any more".
Another delegate said the HSE "Bring Them Home" policy should be called the "Send Them Away" - as of 91 brought home, 50% had left within a year because of poor pay and conditions.
Anne McGowan said it was time for nurses to see the money, and to stand together.
Marie McLoughlin who trained in Boston said she could not help thinking they had been treated poorly because they were a predominantly female grade.