Australian nurses rally in defence of wages and conditions

Between 5,000 and 10,000 nurses marched through central Melbourne yesterday as part of a campaign to defend their wages and conditions against a ruthless offensive being waged by the Liberal government in the Australian state of Victoria. The nurses are maintaining industrial action within the state’s public hospitals in defiance of a ban imposed by the federal Labor government’s Fair Work Australia (FWA) industrial relations tribunal.

Nurses are determined to defend the existing mandatory staffing ratios that the state government aims to dismantle. Premier Ted Baillieu also plans to slash hospital costs by introducing low-paid nursing assistants with only eight weeks’ training to take nursing roles. Further cuts are to be imposed through greater roster “flexibility,” including forcing nurses to work “split shifts” that divide their workday in two.

The nurses, the poorest paid in the country, are also seeking a pay rise of 18.5 percent over four years to achieve parity with their colleagues in other states. The state government is determined to enforce its public sector wages ceiling of 2.5 percent per annum—a substantial real wage cut—with anything more offset by “productivity” concessions.

Yesterday’s rally, organised by the Australian Nursing Federation (ANF), was joined by nurses’ family members and other health workers, including paramedics and mental health workers. The determined mood of the march reflected the nurses’ anger with the Baillieu government and the FWA tribunal.

One nurse told the World Socialist Web Site: “It’s already sweatshop conditions in the hospitals. Your feet never stop running; you don’t get your meal breaks. I don’t want to oversee 20 patients with an untrained assistant.” She continued: “I know in Britain that public health care is even worse than here. My daughter worked in London and Liverpool. We shouldn’t be copying them. If they bring in these cuts we’re stepping back more than 40 years. Quality health care is just as important as food and shelter. We’re fighting for basic rights. Why should only the rich have good health care?”

The Baillieu government’s moves against the nurses are being backed at every step by the Labor government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard. On November 16, Gillard’s FWA ordered a 90-day suspension of the nurses’ limited closure of hospital beds, on the false pretence that the industrial action endangered patients. Under the draconian provisions of the Fair Work Act, nurses face the threat of individual fines of $6,000 and imprisonment for up to 12 months.

From the beginning of their campaign, the nurses have been confronted with a coordinated campaign by the state and federal governments, the media and hospital management.

Before the Fair Work ban on the bed closures, it emerged that the state government had made detailed preparations for an unprecedented lockout. Baillieu and his ministers are ramping up their rhetoric against the nurses. The day before the nurses’ rally, Health Minister David Davis accused them of “embarking on a course of reckless illegality that is going to put patients at risk.”

A section of the marchA section of the march

Nurses are now being harassed in the hospitals. Two nurses yesterday told the WSWS that officials from the Fair Work Ombudsman had been photographing nurses and staff noticeboards—obviously collecting evidence before fines are imposed or criminal prosecutions launched. Another nurse said hospital management had threatened staff with jail if they refused to stop bans.

One nurse from Sunshine Hospital told WSWS reporters: “Fair Work Australia has been used to conspire against us—that’s what it is. The government and FWA are working together against us. It should be called, Conniving Work Australia... We are more and more losing our dignity and our voice. I think we have no voice anywhere. Not in the government or in the hospitals.”

Another nurse said: “If this were now a [state] Labor government it would be the same. We have a duopoly. Gillard has a lot to answer. She thinks that the nurses aren’t aware—and we are aware—that she’s behind this. Why isn’t she standing up and saying something? She’s not because she wants this to happen and she is backing the Liberal government... Gillard and Rudd had a chance to roll back Work Choices before, and they didn’t. They retained elements of it—we’ve got our backs against the wall and we’re forced to do what we’re doing because we have no way out.”

The trade union leaders are doing everything within their power to shut down the industrial campaign and reach an accommodation with the Baillieu government.

For the ANF bureaucracy, yesterday’s march provided another opportunity to appeal to the government. The union wants to allow Fair Work Australia to arbitrate all the wages and workplace conditions under dispute—and has guaranteed that it will accept whatever ruling Labor’s industrial tribunal issues, even if it undermines the nurse-patient ratio and other workplace protections. The problem for the union is that the state government has refused these entreaties, because it does not want to risk an arbitrated decision that fails to deliver on all its demands.

ANF state secretary Lisa Fitzpatrick was the keynote speaker outside parliament yesterday. She declared: “I urge the government, I extend yet another olive branch, and encourage them not to take the axe to the olive branch like they have in the past, but please sit down around the table, listen to our negotiations, and work through this dispute so that we can get a settlement.”

Fitzpatrick expressed her agreement with the government’s bogus pretext that budgetary constraints dictate that hospital spending must be cut and real wages driven down. “Nurses understand about the budget implications,” she stated. “They run their own household budget and they understand that the money’s got to go round, and we’re not asking for more than what we should get in relation to a wage increase.”

This morning, the ANF made Baillieu a new offer to immediately end the nurses’ industrial action. Fitzpatrick asked the government to agree to FWA “compromise arbitration,” which is different from the “consented arbitration” previously urged by the union. In a press release issued today, the ANF leader declared that compromise arbitration “would allow an independent umpire from Fair Work Australia, who has not been involved in any of the multitude of proceedings, to provide a fresh perspective and help the parties get around the impasse.”

The ANF’s promotion of FWA as a so-called independent umpire is consistent with its determined defence of the Labor Party and the Gillard government and its industrial relations regime. Throughout their long history in Australia, industrial courts have invariably “arbitrated” in favour of big business.

At yesterday’s rally, the ANF provided a platform for union bureaucrats from the Health and Community Services Union and Ambulances Association of Australia, Victorian Greens’ parliamentarian Sue Pennicuik, and state Labor opposition leader Daniel Andrews.

The promotion of Andrews underscores the utter contempt with which the ANF holds its members. Andrews served as the previous state Labor government’s health minister, and spearheaded a ruthless drive to abolish the nurse-to-patient ratios. In 2007, that Labor government utilised the Howard government’s Work Choices industrial laws to threaten nurses with fines of thousands of dollars. Andrews then personally denounced the nurses for taking “unnecessary” and “illegal” industrial action and accused them of “compromising the care of hundreds and thousands of patients right across our state.”

Yesterday he shamelessly postured as a supporter of the nurses, declaring that he stood “shoulder to shoulder to defend your nurse-to-patient ratios.”

One nurse, from St. Vincent’s hospital, angrily interjected during the Labor leader’s speech. Afterward she told the WSWS: “Andrews gave a wonderful-sounding spiel, acting as if we don’t remember that under [former Labor premiers] Bracks and Brumby they were trying to take away our nurse-patient ratios ... The Fair Work Australia system was supposed to be ‘fair’ in theory—but they’ve now used it as a trick to attack us. It was meant to be better than Work Choices, but I beg to differ. It’s worse. Gillard has a lot to answer for.”

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The political issues facing Victorian nurses
[23 November 2011]