Victorian state sector nurses are being threatened with having their pay docked for at least four hours for each day they participate in industrial action over wages and conditions, which began following a mass meeting of more than 3500 Australian Nursing Federation (ANF) members on October 16.
The mass meeting overflowed Dallas Brooks Hall as nurses filled all three floors of the building, cramming into aisles and onto the stage. Nurses attended despite threats from hospital managements and the Victorian Hospitals Industries Association (VHIA) that their pay would be docked. Under Work Choices, workers can be docked four hours' pay irrespective of the length of the meeting.
Some nurses reported that they had been told they would be fined $6000 for attending. Nurses from Peninsula Health said management had phoned each nurse and asked them not to attend. Eastern Health told nurses that they cannot use their annual leave or time in lieu to attend ANF meetings.
The state Labor government and hospital managements informed nurses on October 18 that nurse unit managers must keep lists of which nurses are participating in industrial action, which ranges from wearing campaign T-shirts and badges at work to the closure of one in four beds with exemptions for a range of patients including those in oncology/palliative care, labour/neo-natal wards and intensive care units.
Hospital managements claim that under the Workplace Relations Act the hospital can be fined for paying staff while they are taking industrial action.
The mass meeting voted for a campaign of wide-ranging industrial action, including the closure of an additional three beds per ward/unit, which will be reserved for emergency admissions. One in four booked surgery sessions will be cancelled, and nurses will ban the collection and entry of any data or documentation that is not required by law. All non-nursing duties will be banned.
Community health nurses and aged care assessment nurses will
refuse one in three referrals from public sector health facilities, and nurses in mental health will not participate in any non-clinical meetings or activities.
The industrial action also includes wearing campaign stickers, badges, hats and T-shirts. The meeting decided that any excess nursing staff on wards would be redeployed to the emergency departments if required by ED nurses.
The meeting also decided that industrial action can only be lifted by a further statewide meeting of ANF members, which would decide to either accept an offer of settlement for the dispute or maintain or escalate the campaign. In the event that any member is harassed or intimidated from taking industrial action, the ANF state secretary was empowered to call stop-work meetings at that workplace and additional action, which may include four-hour stoppages. A stop-work meeting was organised at Monash Medical Centre on October 18 in response to management's campaign of bullying and intimidation.
The industrial action is in response to a refusal by the Premier John Brumby's ALP state government to accept the ANF's log of claims, which includes a wage rise of 18% over three years and the protection of nurse-patient ratios of 1:4. The ANF is also calling for improved nurse-patient ratios in emergency departments, maternity services, rehabilitation, aged care, dialysis and palliative care.
The Brumby government wants the current ratios abolished, a wage rise of just 3.25% over five years, the introduction of short shifts, the removal of the ANF as negotiators, and the introduction of unlicenced health workers.
The ANF made an application to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission on October 4 for a secret ballot for state sector nurses to vote on taking industrial action. The application was rejected because the ANF is seeking to pattern bargain, which is illegal under Work Choices. A secret ballot application has been accepted for Royal District Nursing Service and Red Cross nurses. The ANF wants to ensure there is one agreement for all public sector nurses in Victoria.
The VHIA has applied to the AIRC on behalf of all public health service employers to have the nurses' bargaining period terminated, which would force the ANF and state government into a compulsory 21-day conciliation period and enable a "workplace determination" to occur (in effect a new award made by the AIRC, which would be restricted by the new Work Choices laws not to include specified nurse-patient ratios).
The state government's attacks on nurses fly in the face of federal Labor's pre-election campaign to recruit qualified nurses back into the public system by offering them $6000 for returning, and to increase the number of student places for nursing degrees.
Victorian nurses are the lowest paid in Australia and according to Victorian ANF secretary Lisa Fitzpatrick, only 45% of undergraduates become registered nurses. Nurses told the mass meeting that they are being driven out of the public sector due to the high workloads and pressure. There has been a 25% increase in Victoria of the number of hospital admissions and outpatients per 100 people over the past four years.
The ANF has called another state wide public sector nurses meeting for October 25. To show your support for the nurses, visit http://www.fundnursingproperly.com.au.