Victorian nurses dispute at a crossroads

As we go to press the success of the Victorian nurses’ dispute hangs in the balance. While a significant layer of rank and file nurses have a desire to take to the dispute in a more militant direction, they are being held back by the conservative leadership of their union, the Australian Nurses Federation (ANF).

Because of pressure from below, the ANF leaders were initially forced to endorse the closure of hundreds of hospital beds and a mass rally. In recent months however the union heads have attempted to wind down the campaign.

In an echo of the austerity measures devastating Europe, the State Government and the Victorian Hospitals Industrial Association last year proposed undermining real wages for nurses and worsening conditions by increasing nurse-patient ratios. As part of the package they also proposed replacing qualified nurses with untrained (and lower paid) ‘health assistants’.

The ANF responded by voting to take protected action, which included up to a thousand bed closures across the state and work bans on elective surgery. This protected action was quickly ruled harmful to patient safety by Fair Work Australia and the nurses were ordered to resume working as usual.

In a move that is unusual in the current industrial climate, the ANF held a mass meeting and unanimously voted to defy Fair Work Australia and continue with the bed closures. During the unprotected action the nurses held a mass rally in the city which had widespread public support.

The unanimous vote to break the law was a great display of defiance from rank and file nurses. The nurses have gained much public support for their modest demands. The public knows that increased nurse-patient ratios are also an attack on the health system more generally.

This dispute shows the real anti-worker nature of Labor’s ‘Fair Work’ legislation. As was the case under Howard’s ‘Work Choices’ laws, industrial action is limited to bargaining periods.

Even then the courts can put a stop to action if they deem that it is having a negative impact on the economy or on public safety. In reality these definitions are purposely open to interpretation and designed to cut across any effective industrial action workers may take to protect their wages and conditions.

While rank and file nurses were prepared to continue to defy the Fair Work Australia ruling, the union leadership had no such courage. After roughly a week, the union leadership eventually conceded and decided to cooperate with the court orders.

There is absolutely no doubting the enthusiasm of the rank and file nurses, their commitment to win and their stake in our public health system. However, this determination is not being matched by their leadership, with the ANF leaders and the leadership of the Victorian Trades Hall both lacking a militant strategy to take the dispute forward.

Trades Hall should be pulling all the public sector unions together in a joint campaign. The facts are that all public sector workers are under attack in some way. As a first step preparations should be made for a 24-hour public sector general strike. A joint log of claims should be developed which includes decent pay rises. The union movement as a whole should be fighting against cuts to staff and services.

Instead Trades Hall did nothing. The ANF leadership rapidly stopped the industrial action and shifted to rallies outside hospitals that gradually wore the nurses down. Later, they encouraged members to resign as an industrial strategy. The Pilots union did the same thing in the 1990’s and the bosses refused to re-employ them, especially the union militants.

Irene Bolger, the former head of the nurses’ union who led a successful strike in the late 1980s, has publicly criticised the softness of the current ANF leadership. Her criticisms strike at the heart of the problem. Industrial action cannot just be symbolic; if workers are to win they must have a clear strategy and undertake action which has a concrete effect. Bolger has criticised the union’s focus on a media strategy rather than a real industrial strategy.

Publicity stunts and pleas to the government are not sufficient to beat the current attacks on public health and nurses’ working conditions. A strategy that is aimed at putting maximum pressure on the government needs to be developed. The nurses’ original resolve to continue the work bans was a step in the right direction but stop work action will also be required.

Ultimately, industrial legislation so weighted on the side of the bosses also needs to be challenged through action. The right to take effective industrial action will only be won by taking on the Labor Party, their laws and the system they defend.

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