Australia: New South Wales nurses voting for second statewide strike

Tens of thousands of nurses in New South Wales (NSW) are voting this week on whether to hold a statewide strike of up to 24 hours on March 31. The health workers are demanding shift-by-shift nurse-to-patient ratios, staffing increases and a 4.75 percent pay rise.

Nurses in Wagga Wagga, in the southern part of the state, have already voted overwhelmingly for the action, with 98.2 percent of around 600 New South Wales Nurses and Midwives’ Association (NSWNMA) members in favour of a 24-hour strike. Branch NSWNMA president Amit Gupta said that at Wagga Wagga Base Hospital, every shift was short by eight to ten nurses.

Gupta said: “Staff are fatigued, they can’t concentrate and it’s affecting their health and wellbeing.”

Striking nurses in Sydney, February 15, 2022 [Photo: WSWS]

The proposed industrial action would occur just over six weeks after the first statewide walkout by NSW nurses in almost a decade. The February 15 strike proceeded in defiance of a ban issued by the NSW Industrial Relations Commission (IRC). In line with the Liberal-National state government, the pro-business tribunal claimed the strike would “pose a risk to public health and safety.”

The NSWNMA bureaucracy was entirely on board with the attempt to shut down last month’s strike, holding backroom talks with government and health representatives late into the afternoon on February 14.

The NSWNMA was compelled to proceed with the stoppage out of fear that the anger and frustration of health workers over longstanding staffing, safety and pay issues, exacerbated by COVID-19, was rising to a level the union would not be able to control.

The NSWNMA intended to hold the February 15 strike as a one-off event to allow workers to “let off steam,” as the union did in 2013, wrapping up the dispute after a single statewide strike and leaving workers’ demands unmet. The call for a second strike demonstrates that this strategy was not enough to suppress workers’ opposition to “let it rip” COVID-19 policies and a wage increase cap that is far short of inflation.

As it did last month, the union is proceeding in a fashion designed to isolate workers and stifle discussion. The decision on whether to strike and for how long is being left up to individual branches, and again only NSWNMA nurses working in public hospitals with union branches are allowed to take part.

Whole sections of health workers who also face dire conditions and are ready to strike are being deliberately excluded, by the NSWNMA and the other health unions.

On Monday, NSW Ambulance workers covered by the Australian Paramedics Association (APA) carried out minor industrial action over pay and staff shortages, while intensive care paramedics in the Health Services Union (HSU) undertook partial work bans last Friday. While the unions ensured the character of these was extremely limited, the demand of workers for action was clear. APA paramedics defied an IRC “recommendation” that the action be called off, while an overwhelming 91 percent of HSU workers voted in favour of their action.

The nurses’ strike took place amid broader signs of anger and opposition in the working class, particularly among public sector workers, including teachers and rail workers, who are all subject to the 2.5 percent annual pay rise cap. In addition, throughout 2020, many public sector workers, including nurses, were subjected to a pay freeze, receiving an annual increase of just 0.3 percent.

With inflation already at 3.5 percent, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and expected to rise further, there is growing hostility to the prospect that future pay “rises” will in fact be cuts in real terms.

In fact, the cost of living for workers is rising much more rapidly than the official figures indicate. “Non-discretionary” inflation is at 4.5 percent, meaning the prices of basic goods and services, including housing, transport and food are soaring, accelerated both by the worsening global pandemic and the Ukraine-Russia war.

As a result, even if the meagre 4.75 percent wage rise demand being advanced by the NSWNMA is granted, nurses will still likely be worse off.

At the February strike rallies, the union sought to suppress any political discussion, warning nurses against speaking to “other protest groups.” This was clearly a reference to the Socialist Equality Party, the only political tendency exposing the union’s collaboration with the government throughout the pandemic and raising the need for an independent mobilisation of workers.

The union sought to channel workers’ anger into plaintive demands of the state government at the same time as promoting illusions that nurses’ problems were caused by Perrottet and the Liberal-National state government alone.

The NSWNMA’s recent social media posts, featuring tepid criticisms of Perrottet and Treasurer Matt Kean, make clear that the union will pursue the same bankrupt line at next week’s strike.

In fact, the dire conditions in the public health system are the product of decades of cuts carried out by successive Labor and Coalition governments. Contrary to claims made by union speakers on February 15, the situation for health workers in Victoria and Queensland, with Labor governments, is no better than in NSW.

A recent survey of 1,061 nurses across the country by the Australian Primary Health Care Nurses Association found that 28.73 percent plan to quit in the next 12 months. More than 80 percent of those surveyed said they felt exhausted from work, while 78.8 percent were experiencing burnout.

Staff shortages have been a chronic problem in public health nursing for decades, as the NSWNMA has enforced the continual slashing of health spending by successive governments. In one industrial award negotiation after another, the union has shut down workers’ demands for genuine pay increases, mandatory nurse-to-patient ratios and overall staffing increases.

The pandemic has massively worsened the existing situation. In addition to the sheer number of COVID-19 patients, many requiring high levels of care and constant monitoring, workload has increased as a result of large numbers of health workers becoming infected themselves.

In mid-January, during the first Omicron wave, more than 5,600 NSW health workers were unable to work due to COVID-19 infection or exposure. Those nurses who did not get sick were forced to work constant overtime, and as one registered nurse told World Socialist Web Site reporters at the February 15 strike, “most nurses didn’t get to have a break until they got COVID.”

Since the January “peak,” the NSW government, in lockstep with Labor and Liberal-National governments around the country, has removed virtually all public health measures against the virus and forced the return of teachers and students to face-to-face learning. As a direct and entirely predictable result, infections are again surging, driven as well by the arrival of the more highly contagious BA.2 variant.

Having briefly dipped below 1,000, COVID-19 hospitalisations are again on the rise, and more than 3,400 health workers are currently in isolation, one third higher than last week.

While NSWNMA officials have made vague allusions to the role of Perrottet in promoting the spread of COVID-19, they have deliberately tried to cover up the bipartisan nature of the “let it rip” policy, now adopted by all Australian governments, Labor and Liberal-National alike.

The NSWNMA cannot speak frankly on the question of who is responsible for the pandemic, because to do so would expose the union’s own role. At no point has it opposed the “live with the virus” program. In January, the union backed changes to close-contact isolation rules, forcing potentially-infected nurses to remain on the job to cover staff shortages.

This was a continuation of the role played by the NSWNMA and all other health unions over decades, enforcing the demands of successive governments for spending and jobs to be slashed.

Nurses’ struggle for increased staffing and genuine pay increases cannot be separated from a political fight against the capitalist system, which subordinates the health and lives of ordinary people to the profit interests of big business. This is sharply exposed in the criminal COVID-19 policies that continue to promote mass infection, illness and death.

Such a perspective cannot be advanced within the framework of the unions, which function as the industrial police force of business and the capitalist state. Instead, nurses must form their own rank-and-file committees, independent of the unions, and reach out to other sections of workers to mount a united struggle against the continuing attacks on working-class jobs, pay and conditions.

Ultimately, what is required is a fight for socialism and workers governments, under which essential public services, including health, education and transport, would be operated to meet the needs of workers and ordinary people, not serve the profit interests of the wealthy elite.