Lessons for today’s unionists from the Victorian nurses’ strike

Irene Bolger was branch secretary of the Victorian branch of the Royal Australian Nursing Federation (RANF) when 20,000 nurses went on strike for 50 days in 1986. It was one of the longest strikes in Australian history and it was led by women.

Now, flipping through a stack of trade union and history books, Bolger says: “Lengthy on an international scale, it was 50 days of rage. But still I can't seem to find any reference to one of the most significant strikes in Australian history. The sexism continues."

The 30-year legacy of the nurse’s strike is largely ignored by mainstream publications; its story an “annoyance” for authors who cannot quite seem to grasp the impact of the strike.

For the longest Australian strike organised and run by women to be omitted from history is surprising. It is a cliché that “winners write history” — but the nurses won.

It should not surprise. For those 50 days, tenacious and skilled nurses managed to piss off every dominant male from Bob Hawke and Paul Keating to Victorian Labor Premier John Cain and then-ACTU president Simon Crean.

“Books on strikes are usually written by male authors,” explained Bolger. Clearly the male historians, journalists and leaders did not think the women’s victory worthy of even a footnote.

But the strike is remembered fondly and hopefully by working women. My own mother, an administrative officer at a nursing university, walked off in solidarity with the nurses. Bolger’s eyes light up excitedly when I tell her this and she says: “For millions of Australians it was the first female strike with any significance.”

Bolger, the object of bullying and sexism from the powerful elite, leans forward in her chair with a fiery gaze. “Those 50 days of rage are now a badge of honour. It was a political challenge to the system, way ahead of its time."

Origins of the strike

The strike began in 1986 as the wave of 1970s feminism finally smashed into the Australian continent. Skilled and talented women were still finding their voice in male-dominated industries and women were often sidelined to “female occupations”, such as teaching, cleaning, sewing and nursing. A range of women workers, including nurses, had not received a pay rise in 30 years.

Lalitha Chelliah, nurse, unionist and organiser at that time with Bolger, recalls the “state had a shortfall of 14,000 nurses and many were leaving the profession”. Hospital waiting lists grew; cuts and shortages loomed.

Nurses began to seek pay rises in the early ’80s, just as the federal Labor government, the ACTU and big businesses began to implement a grand macro-level bargain: the Accord. The Accord would keep Labor in power, enhance productivity and keep inflation and wages in check. But the powerful did not bother to ask working men, much less working women, about the Accord.

Charismatic and militant, Bolger became secretary of the Victorian branch of RANF in early 1986 and began to forge an industrial consciousness in nurses. A republican and a socialist, Bolger had been instrumental in removing the “no strike clause” from the Victorian Branch rules in 1984.

In the “Keep Nurses Nursing” campaign in 1985, nurses took industrial action in response to their concerns over wages, the career structure and their objection to performing non-nursing duties. On October 11, nurses voted for the first time to strike indefinitely throughout Victoria. The strike, a precursor to the following year’s strike, lasted five days.

Anger and indignation reached furious levels in 1986 when the state Industrial Relations Commission handed down a new award. The award introduced a new career structure, which resulted in large-scale demotions for nurses due to new classifications of nurses into Grade 1 and Grade 2, together with a cap on the number of nurses in the higher pay bracket. Qualification allowances were reduced by more than half and student nurses were paid $64 less a week than in NSW. Midwives were classified as Grade 1 nurses, despite years of experience and an extra year of study.

"Nurses lost wages in some cases and felt humiliated," said Bolger. It was a contradiction: the new economy gurus wanted to professionalise nursing but offered a career structure with less pay and less support.

The strike begins

No longer a sleeper issue, the anger grew at Town Hall meetings. Yet in the halls of power, the ACTU and unions fell into line with the Accord. On October 30, the rank and file voted to “walk-out and strike” — 5000 nurses called the bluff of the ACTU and Trades Hall who had ruled out strike action.

The RANF leadership’s acceptance of the rank and file vote would govern the strike — and Bolger. The delegate from Epworth Hospital said: “Irene is our employee. We tell her what to do.”

Emboldened in the first weeks, nurses occupied the green spaces outside Melbourne hospitals, pitching tents and creating shared spaces. Picket lines swelled; hospitals were in lock-down; barbecues blazed; donations flooded in; and the public tooted horns in support. “Patchewollock nurses, sat knitting at the front lines, behind signs reading 'picket line’," recalled Chelliah.

The RANF defiantly lodged a log of 20 grievances with the new award, including wage increases for Grade 1 and student nurses, reinstatement of qualification allowances, reclassification of Nursing Grades and a withdrawal of the demotions.

Union support

In the radical move towards community unionism, the strike gained the support of the Meat Workers Union and the Builders Labourers Federation — then under threat of imminent deregistration — at the picket lines with food, support, and logistics.

"Most, if not all, unions did not officially support the strike, but individual members stood up and showed support," said Bolger.  

The Hospital Employees Federation (HEF) leadership publicly sided with the government and its secretary Les Butler instructed members to cross picket lines. But at Prince Henry’s, Queen Victoria and Western General, among others, they refused. Pickets began to stop non-essential supplies to hospitals, backed by Transport Workers Union drivers. At Prince Henry’s HEF members agreed to not touch any goods brought in by scabs and threatened a total walkout if police intervened.

Chelliah said: "Just about every hospital had a picket line, and the famous one was at St Vincent’s Hospital on Victoria Parade. Hundreds came there for a feed."

A daily strike bulletin went out across Victoria, the telephones and faxes ran hot and a weekly 3CR show broadcast news of the strike. A strike action committee met daily at the RANF offices to work out tactics and go over experiences. The strike fund reached $200,000 from working union members, but tens of thousands of nurses were broke, hungry and in some cases, unable to pay rent or feed their families.

It was the sight of penniless nurses gallantly defending the picket lines that gave them an unwavering 80% public support, despite savage media-attacks. The media undulated between provocative headlines — “Nurses are killing patients” — and conciliatory — “Nurses have made their point”.

Bolger said: “The strike was sensitive, as nurses cared for people whose lives were at stake. There was a moral pressure. Ghost staff worked the ER rooms and not one single person died during the strike."

The strike escalates

By November 19, 40 Melbourne and regional hospitals were striking, although the union agreed that nurses at the Peter MacCullum Cancer Institute, Fairfield Hospital and the Royal Children’s Hospital should continue working. The Alfred Hospital’s nurses, described as “middle-class and hardly a hotbed of socialism”, picketed and building unions were threatening to impose bans.

Losing the battle, Cain threatened to invoke the Essential Services Act, providing police with the power to break picket-lines. He gave a two-minute television address on November 6, describing the nurses’ leaders as “dogmatic and uncompromising”.

Chelliah recalls: “They were attacking picket-lines on horseback at Royal Melbourne Hospital. All sorts of complications arose: sexism; desperate husbands abandoning wives; some nurses married to police.”

Bolger stirred the picket lines with “We will win because we care about each other and we care as nurses” speeches. As the nurses forced back the police, the ACTU intervened, duplicitously. Bolger recalls rough meetings with ACTU secretary Bill Kelty, and Victorian Labor ministers. The ACTU were resolutely against the strike.

Bolger said: “[Kelty] was a man who wouldn't look a woman in the eyes. He had these bug eyes." After the ACTU’s Jenny Acton backtracked on support, Bolger walked out of talks with Kelty to front the media. Replayed on TV screens across the nation, Bolger stood firm: the strike would continue; the nurses would win.

Racism and sexism

Power, gender and sexism, usually latent and hidden in Australia, inflamed the campaign. Union leaders in bed with each other became the red herring — along with reds under the beds, said Bolger.

Similar to social media attacks today, Bolger and the leadership group were trolled. She was labelled “terrifying”; a “fascist”; “aggressive”; “out of control”; “dangerous”; a “communist”; “killer”; and a “terrorist”.

Chelliah, one of a handful of nurses of colour, recalls the racism and sexism. “That I was dark, angry and working class caused a storm,” she said. “I stood out, as there was not really any multiculturalism at the time.”

They were described as “a Sri Lankan radical’’ and “Fuehrer Irene” (Bolger). Ultimately, Bolger would ban the media from the picket lines.

Male workers openly told the press and politicians that angry female nurses should not be paid more than male workers. Bolger recalls metal workers calling a pay raise for nurses unfair because “nurses shouldn’t earn more than metal workers”.

Crean provoked further aggravation when he resorted to the cliche that “nurses had asked for too much”. Bolger responded: “Simon Crean should keep his mouth shut. He doesn't know what is going on."

David White, the Victorian health minister, typified the thinking at the time: “Their blue collar tactics are just an attempt to embarrass the government. These must stop and they must comply with established process of dispute resolution.”

"So even the idea of women using male strike tactics became running sexist commentary," said Bolger. “The class issue was clear: white-collar female workers were not to use ‘blue collar tactics’.”

Strike ends

In the end, it was the most militant of tactics that halted the strike. On December 8, the union escalated its action and nurses began walking out of critical care wards at Royal Women’s Hospital and the Preston and Northcote Community Hospital. Three days later, White responded by announcing the government would instruct State Enrolled Nurses (SENs) to do the nurses’ work.

However, this time the government had finally overstepped the mark. The government did not publicly back down on the SENs until December 17, but it had manoeuvred itself into a dead-end position. On December 19, the government caved and the win was secured.

A combination of huge public support, Bolger taking orders from nurses, the overall skill of the nurses, and direct action propelled the longest female strike in Australian history. The nurses won the battle, their pay shot up and their conditions were improved.

Bolger believes nurses were industrialised by the strike and were an important force against neoliberal policies, which would create tension throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

The Accord collapsed in the Howard years. It directly transitioned the unions into the neoliberal state of affairs. Union membership tumbled, industrial towns closed down and manufacturing went offshore. Class and gender distinctions sharpened.

"Both hospital and worker privatisations have created a McDonald’s hospital culture, one where nurses maybe don't know that they are powerful," said Bolger. Her lesson, after 30 years on picket lines: “Better to just forge on, forget about government.”

Female union membership is high in teaching, nursing and community services. Bolger thinks the senior female group could be the new strength of the labour movement — if only male leaders acknowledged that fact.

Maybe gaining a historical understanding of the nurse’s strike would be a good start.

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