Disappointing end to Victorian nurses’ dispute

The nine month dispute between nurses and midwifes in Victorian public hospitals and the Baillieu State government has come to an end. The Australian Nurses Federation (ANF) announced in mid March that a settlement had been reached and that all industrial action could be called off.

Throughout this dispute nurses enjoyed high levels of public support. This was a testament to the hard work that they do and the fact that the majority of ordinary people want to see the public health system maintained and expanded.

While some media outlets reported that the deal included ‘historic’ pay rises of 14-21%, it seems that the truth is rather different. From all accounts the ANF has effectively agreed to the government’s 2.5% annual pay cap.

The figures of 14-21% were calculated over a four year period and include ‘Professional Development’ allowances. Professional Development allowances are not pay rises. This money is to be spent on training in order to expand upon your qualification.

Even if you include these allowances the vast bulk of nurses are looking at a pay increase of about 3.5% a year. Given that cost of living increases are reaching almost 5% a year, this equates to a real wage cut.

Despite failing to secure pay rises that keep up with the cost of living, the ANF leaders also made a series of ‘productivity’ concessions. These include the use of more, lesser qualified (and lesser paid) ‘enrolled nurses’. The quota has been increased from 15% under the last agreement to 20% in the new agreement.

One of the key demands of the ANF was to maintain nurse-patient ratios. While the ratios were technically maintained the clause on ratios in the agreement has been watered down. It now allows hospitals to undermine the ratios if it is done in ‘good faith’. Nurses no longer have the ability to block changes to ratios at a hospital level.

Nurses now face a situation where ratios can be increased, effectively at the discretion of management. This opens the door to increasing nurses’ workloads and reducing patient safety.

Further to this, the deal does not include any provisions for back pay, meaning nurses will continue to be paid their old rates until the deal is finalised. This will probably happen around May – almost a year after negotiations began.

It is true that the government was forced to retreat of a number of their initial claims. For example they wanted to introduce a type of second class nurse in the form of Health Assistants. They also wanted to formally reduce the nurse-patient ratios. While the government did not win the full extent of these claims, they have forced the ANF to make significant concessions compared to the previous agreement.

In the end the government’s tactic of focusing on nurse-patient ratios successfully diverted the ANF leaders away from talking about decent pay rises. On many occasions the leaders were heard saying “this dispute is not about pay, it is only about the ratios”.

This suited the government in negotiations as they were now in a position to offer a tiny pay rise (effectively a pay cut) while backing off on ratios. It is possible that this was their plan all along and the ANF leaders fell for it hook, line and sinker.

While the ANF leadership has promoted this deal as a resounding victory, it is simply not true. This agreement locks in low levels of pay compared to other states. It is clear that much more could have been won if a proper industrial and political strategy was put in place from the beginning.

For example, it is not just the nurses who were negotiating a new agreement with the State government. Almost ten other unions, all covering public sector workers, have also been negotiating deals. If all of the public sector unions were fighting together they would have been in a much stronger position.

If the Victorian Trades Hall was relevant in any way, they would have brought the public sector unions together around a common set of demands which included decent pay rises, opposition to jobs losses and no trade offs. If all of the unions agreed to take action, and settle together, it could have forced the government to concede quickly.

Perhaps one of most demoralising features of this dispute was the fact that ANF leaders paraded ALP politicians around as if they were allies of the nurses. The truth is that the ALP leader in Victoria, Daniel Andrews, was the Health Minister during the last round of negotiations. Only four years ago he also tried to cap nurses’ wages and undermine nurse-patient ratios. Despite this Andrews was cordially invited to speak at a mass rally.

At the same time Federal IR Minister Bill Shorten was invited to speak at a number of meetings. Shorten is in fact the ALP Minister in charge of the IR laws that restricted the nurses from taking effective industrial action! The attempt by the ANF leaders to use this dispute to rally support for the ALP was both dishonest and a distraction from what really needed to be done.

By far the best feature of the dispute was the role played by rank and file nurses. The enthusiasm and courage that nurses showed in defying Fair Work Australia and continuing with illegal stoppages and bed closures, without a doubt pushed the ANF leaders further than they wanted to go.

It is a tragedy that this courage and enthusiasm was not matched by the conservative leadership. The challenge ahead is to build a leadership in the ANF that is prepared to stand up to the ALP’s anti-worker laws and strives to build the maximum possible unity between the public sector unions. Anything less will only see nurses’ pay continue to go backwards and the further undermining of Victoria’s health system.

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