Twice daily outside almost every Victorian public hospital there are nurses protesting and waving banners in a spirited display of defiance.
They are not being incited by their union. They are walking off the job for four hours at a time, demanding a pay rise and defending the very essence of quality public health. A brief scouring of social media or talkback radio shows that Victorians love nurses, despite government propaganda to the contrary.
Officially, 1500 nurses at 15 public hospitals are taking part in the dispute, even though they were ordered back to work on February 24 by Fair Work Australia, and the Federal Court ordered their officials off site on February 28.
The Baillieu Coalition government now appears to be impotent in the face of the nurses’ action and groundswell of public support. They have asked for a one-week adjournment in the Federal Court while they collect information about Australian Nursing Federation (ANF) officials’ behaviour that may constitute contempt of court orders.
ANF lawyer Robert Richter QC told the court that the Victorian Hospitals Industry Association (VHIA) wanted to single out individuals and was engaged in a “political vendetta”.
Nurses risk individual fines of up to $6600, and the union risks fines of up to $33,000, for breaching the Fair Work Act. They face potentially greater fines, imprisonment or confiscation of property if they are found guilty of contempt of court charges by the Federal Court.
VHIA chief executive Alec Djoneff said there was some indication that ANF officials were continuing to support and encourage the industrial action, but that required further proof.
“Clearly [the ANF] Facebook page is replete with encouragement and support, which to me is contrary to the spirit of the orders,” he said on March 2.
ANF Victorian branch secretary Lisa Fitzpatrick denied that the union had breached the court order. AAP reported that she said: “We don’t live, I understand, in a dictatorship, and we will not have our members gagged, and we will be vigorously defending [suggestions] that there should be any taking down or censoring of what our members say.”
On March 1, the ANF said: “Baillieu government-paid lawyers wrote to ANF solicitors last night demanding ANF delete nurses’ and midwives’ posts from the Facebook campaign page.
“The letter seeks that ANF immediately delete from the Facebook site any and all comments which organise, advise or assist the taking of industrial action by ANF members or which aid, threaten or propose to engage in such conduct.”
The Victorian union movement is watching this dispute with great interest. Victoria’s nurses are challenging Australia’s anti-union industrial relations system.
Throughout the past eight months, the Baillieu government has forced the ANF to play a cat and mouse game.
The ANF at first tried to run its dispute through the legal channels of the Fair Work Act. The government then used the act to force nurses to lift their legal industrial action before the end of last year. If the nurses had not complied they would have been forced into compulsory arbitration, which meant they risked losing their nurse patient ratios — a critical issue for all nurses.
As a result, they have now been forced to take unprotected industrial action. This means their action is not sanctioned by FWA. So when nurses ignored the ruling ordering them back to work on February 24, the government was forced to move to the Federal Court.
The court’s February 28 ruling restrained ANF officers, employees, delegates and agents from essentially inciting their members to withdraw their labour.
The court also forced the ANF to publish an update on their official website, Facebook webpage and twitter account saying that the unprotected action had been cancelled. The ANF complied with the order.
However, by February 29 nurses were walking out of hospitals independently, backed by volunteers from many other union and community backgrounds. This is what the Baillieu government is now seeking to end.
But it is not easy to stuff the genie back into the bottle. For example, rank-and-file firefighters, building workers, metal workers, teachers and many other workers have been visiting the protests daily.
Even hospital patients have joined nurses and have sat outside on the street in solidarity.
In one case, firefighters were ordered not to attend or show solidarity with nurses by their management. However, rank-and-file firefighters told one source that coincidentally there then appeared to be an increase of fire calls and gas leaks near most public hospitals.
In fact, every time the government tries to intimidate the nurses, such as its call to suppress comments on the ANF Facebook site, this increases the levels of disgust and protest.
Fitzpatrick said on March 1: “Nurses have long been suspicious that the Baillieu government actually employs people whose only job is to sit in front of a computer and delete critical comments on government social media sites.
“Gagging nurses and midwives will not resolve this dispute.
“I again call on Baillieu to be the man he was in opposition four years ago when he called on the previous premier to stop being confrontational and take the conciliation path to resolve this dispute.”