Nurses, health workers campaign escalates

Issue 

BY REBECCA MECKELBURG
& MARCEL CAMERON

BRISBANE — As the ALP state government reels from growing industrial turmoil in public hospitals, Premier Peter Beattie has withdrawn his unprecedented threat to attempt to conduct a secret ballot of Queensland public sector nurses. The threat was an attempt to force an end to an escalating campaign of industrial action led by the Queensland Nurses Union (QNU), which represents 90% of public sector-nurses.

Beattie now confronts an angry, determined and united nursing workforce; a growing revolt by all public sector health workers, including doctors; and widespread public support for the nurses' campaign.

Rolling stoppages and work bans by nurses and other health workers, affecting more than 100 hospitals and other health facilities, have closed 600 beds and cancelled hundreds of elective surgery procedures. A 24-hour strike held at the Gold Coast Hospital on July 3 resulted in the closure of 60 beds and the cancellation of operations. Angry nurses brandishing "chunder buckets" vowed to join nurses from other hospitals in the march on parliament on July 12.

The government had hoped to conduct a secret ballot in which nurses would be asked to vote on whether to accept the government's offer of a 6% pay rise over two years — an offer dismissed as inadequate by the QNU in negotiations with Queensland Health over a new enterprise bargaining agreement.

The QNU has so far refused to compromise on its core demands of a 6% pay rise per year for three years, a one-off pay increase of 6% to achieve parity with nurses salaries in other states and a log of claims relating to improved working conditions, job security and ongoing training.

Far from caving in to Beattie's ballot threat, the union responded by emphasising that nurses are prepared to continue their campaign across Queensland public hospitals.

As a result, on July 4 Beattie announced that the government would be prepared to shelve its secret ballot if the QNU agreed to lift work bans and return to the negotiating table.

The QNU refused to lift the bans and has called for a mass rally outside Queensland's parliament on July 12. Nurses across the state will stop work for between three and 24 hours. Five thousand nurses are expected to rally in Brisbane, simultaneous rallies and marches are also planned for other regional centres. The QNU has welcomed attendance from others who support nurses in their campaign for better pay and working conditions.

QNU state secretary Gay Hawkesworth told the Courier Mail that the government had misjudged the level of discontent felt by nurses. She accused the government of "turning its back on Labor Party ideals".

Other union leaders have also reacted with disgust to the government's attempt to impose a secret ballot. Australian Workers Union assistant state secretary Bill Ludwig told the July 5 Courier Mail that "The premier is the only friend [federal industrial relations minister Tony] Abbott's got ... If you look at the performance of the [state] government all it has managed to do is turn conservative and moderate unions into militant organisations."

Even the Murdoch-owned Courier Mail has criticised the government — news editor Tony Koch headed his July 4 front-page comment piece "Vote bid insult". Koch pointed out that the Beattie government is attempting an industrial tactic that former Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Peterson "wouldn't even try".

"Perhaps Joh thought of it, but considered it so outrageous, so inflammatory, so insulting to the democratic process, that it was beneath him", Koch warned.

One of the few to support the state government was federal employment services minister Mal Brough, who told the media that Beattie had followed the lead of the federal Coalition government in trying to use secret ballots to help the bosses win industrial disputes. He added that Beattie's attempt vindicated the Coalition's push to make such ballots compulsory before a strike.

Ten other unions representing 32,000 health sector workers have lodged 200 notices of protected industrial action with the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission, as part of a separate enterpise negoitation, and have vowed to continue their own campaign of work industrial action bans even if the government's dispute with the QNU is resolved.

On July 4 members of the Australian Salaried Medical Officers Federation Queensland (ASMOFQ) from Brisbane's major public hospitals held a stop-work meeting and decided on rolling bans on administrative work to begin within 10 days. The union, which represents more than 900 doctors, has rejected the government's offer of a 3% pay rise and warned that there will be further protests by interns, resident medical officers, registrars and specialists.

ASMOFQ president Dr Nick Buckmaster told the July 5 Courier Mail that working conditions for doctors employed by Queensland Health "have been steadily getting more and more difficult", with senior medical staff working a 50-hour week. "We know that the more pressure there is on medical staff, the more chance of mistakes being made", said Buckmaster.

Private sector general practitioners have voted to suspend further strike action until July 30 pending negotiations with the state government. According to the Australian Medical Association, indemnity insurance premiums for doctors have risen by 50% to as much as $100,000 a year and the increase would be passed on to patients.

From Green Left Weekly, July 10, 2002.
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