Defiant nurses stand ground

Issue 

BY REBECCA MECKELBURG & MARCEL CAMERON

BRISBANE — Despite the state ALP government's attempts to undermine the Queensland Nurses Union's (QNU) stop-work rally at Parliament House on July 12, more than 3000 angry public and private sector nurses and supporters turned up to further the battle for a decent health system.

On July 10, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission ordered the QNU to lift its work bans for 48 hours, in an attempt to prevent nurses attending the rally. While complying, QNU officials announced at the rally that the bans would be reimplemented at 5pm that day. Nurses responded with massive cheers and whistles — one protester held a placard that read, "I represent 50 absent colleagues because of the IRC ruling!"

QNU secretary Gay Hawkesworth described the state ALP government's attempt to undermine the union's negotiations with a secret ballot of union members, and the government's forced backdown. With 90% coverage of Queensland public health nurses and QNU membership growth of 3,166 members since the beginning of 2002, QNU members are confident of defeating any ballot the government wants to put.

Grace Grace, secretary of the Queensland Council of Unions (QCU), told the rally that she had never seen such a high level of community support for any industrial campaign. Grace pledged the support of other health sector unions for the QNU campaign.

The remainder of the speaker's platform was dedicated to nurse activists. Dee White from Bundaberg hospital said: "Hospitals only continue to manage because nurses are holding the system together... nurses will not prop up this underfunded public hospital system any longer". Other delegates commended QNU officials for providing real leadership in the campaign.

Many noted the atmosphere of militancy and determination at the event, which concluded with the delivery of 65,000 petition signatures to the Queensland parliamentary speaker.

Meanwhile, a survey of more than 2800 nurses has revealed the extent of the crisis in the public health system. Commissioned by the QNU and conducted by a research team from the University of Southern Queensland's Centre for Rural and Remote Area Health, the survey revealed some nurses caring for 12 patients at a time, patients lying for long periods in wet beds, or being sent home too early from hospital.

Nurses reported incidents of physical and verbal abuse, bullying and harassment. One aged care nurse said she was the only registered nurse in the nursing home from 7pm to 10am and was responsible for 99 patients.

Ten other unions negotiating a separate enterprise agreement with Queensland Health have continued their campaign of rolling work bans. The unions have called a statewide day of action for July 18, when health workers from Brisbane will converge in a mass march on parliament house.

Queensland Health has recruited 14 long-term unemployed people on the work-for-the-dole program to undermine work bans by Australian Services Union members at Nambour Hospital on the Sunshine Coast. ASU branch secretary Julie Bignall told the media that "The premier says that he is bargaining in good faith, but Queensland Health's industrial tactics look more like the waterfront than our hospitals."

Queensland premier Peter Beattie announced on July 8 that the government would "review" the public sector enterprise bargaining system. The review is to be chaired by ex-prime minister Bob Hawke. The QCU and health sector unions said they would not cooperate with the review.

From Green Left Weekly, July 17, 2002.
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