Three thousand nurses and midwives rallied outside the Western Australian parliament on November 25 as part of a state-wide strike for better wages and conditions.
The strike, called by the Australian Nursing Federation WA, has been described as the largest industrial action in more than a decade.
The union announced the strike four days before, following a membership ballot that rejected — by a massive 84% — the government’s inadequate pay offer.
Its offer retained the initial rejected wage offer of $3000 as well as an extra $1000 “preceptorship allowances” to nurses working at levels 1.8 and 2.4.
The union executive initially supported the offer, cancelling scheduled rolling strikes as a prerequisite to finalising an “in-principle agreement”.
In response to members’ rising outrage, within 24 hours ANF WA Secretary Janet Reah condemned the deal and announced the one-day strike action.
The McGowan Labor government’s response to the union action has been unprecedented. It requested the WA Industrial Relations Commission order the union to stop discussions between members and the secretary on the wage offer and suggested comments to its official Facebook page be disabled.
Labor also threatened legal action against any private bus company providing nurses and midwives transport to attend the strike rally.
Community support remained for the strike, despite Health Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson’s efforts to run a scare campaign about a pending public health emergency.
Despite these attacks, and possibly in reaction to them, the ANF members’ response has been united and resounding. The energy and mass participation of members has been inspiring.
However, the ANF executive has jettisoned members’ demand for a 10% annual pay rise, the motion overwhelmingly supported at the mass stop-work meeting on October 12.
Now, the union executive is demanding a 5% wage rise, alongside a cost-of-living payment of $3000 and better patient-staff ratios.
This is only a slight improvement on the government’s 3% offer as both amount to real pay cuts when inflation (currently officially 7.3%) is taken into account.
The government and the ANF are, in effect, arguing about what degree of wage cut is “fair”, not whether nurses and midwives’ wages should rise in line in inflation.
Chronic understaffing in hospitals will not be resolved by staff, already burned out before the pandemic, and having to bear rising living costs on a shrinking income.
While it boasts a $6 billion surplus, Labor still claims it cannot afford above-inflation pay rises for nurses and midwives.
This claim has never been adequately scrutinised. WA is the country’s mining state, yet receives less in mining royalties from corporations than car registration funding.
If Labor demanded royalties from fossil fuel companies it could invest in public sector wages and better services. The fact that it doesn’t is a political choice.
A revelation from the strike was the ANF executive’s rejection of the offer from numerous unions, as well as the peak body Unions WA, to organise contingents to show support to the rally.
The ANF is not affiliated to Unions WA and did not participate in an earlier joint campaign by healthcare unions to fight for a 5% wage rise.
ANF members did not know about the unions’ offer of solidarity and that they were told to stay away. Many of these same unions are affiliated to Labor and yet were prepared to support the rally. It makes their snubbing by the ANF executive even more galling.
The membership will need to discuss this very soon, with a view to uphold the principle of union solidarity and because as the enterprise agreement campaign continues, union and community support will be crucial.
There has been no indication that the government will change tack. McGowan described the strike as “criminal”, meaning the need for further industrial escalation is likely.
[Chris Jenkins is a member of the ANF WA and the Socialist Alliance.]