Victoria's nurses are fighting three enemies: the state Labor government, the hospital administrations, and the federal Coalition government.
The decision by Victorian premier John Brumby to use the full force of Work Choices against Victoria's nurses demonstrates once again that when it is in government the Labor Party is capable of being just as anti-worker as the Coalition.
Nurses report that this is the first time in many years that hospital administrations have been so intimidating towards them for implementing work bans. Individual nurses are being hauled into offices and interviewed to determine if they have engaged in industrial action such as closing beds, wearing campaign T-shirts and badges and refusing to complete paperwork.
This aggression is possible because managers have access to the draconian anti-worker legislation that is Work Choices.
If Brumby was really serious about opposing Work Choices — and not just being seen at the front of union marches against the IR laws — the state Labor government would refuse to use it against the nurses and not dock them four hours pay for every day they participate in industrial action.
However, federal workplace relations minister Joe Hockey's hypocritical point-scoring against the Labor Party on October 18 was just sickening. In a farcical display of electioneering opportunism, the minister responsible for Work Choices claimed to support the Victorian nurses!
So where can nurses and other workers in their situation turn? The federal Labor Party provides little hope, as they will keep most of the sections of Work Choices that are presently being used by the Brumby's government. Moreover, shadow workplace relations minister Julia Gillard has made it crystal clear that the nurses' action would be illegal under Labor's "Forward with 'Fairness'" policy.
The Socialist Alliance's Victorian candidates have pledged that the Alliance will do whatever it can to support the nurses' campaign. After all, the nurses are fighting for all of us by demanding an adequately staffed, adequately funded public hospital system.
The nurses are also giving a lead to other workers by showing that workers shouldn't let Work Choices deter them from taking industrial action when it is needed.
They are also showing what a lot of union officials have preferred to forget: that if the cause is just, and is supported by the workers concerned, Work Choices can be defied. And there is nothing the government can do about it, especially if the public gives them the support that Victoria's nurses are receiving — even from patients whose operations have had to be delayed.
[Former health worker Margarita Windisch is the Socialist Alliance's lead Senate candidate for Victoria.]