Public backs Victoria’s nurses in crucial workplace dispute

March 2, 2012
Nurses outside Maroondah Hospital, Melbourne.
Nurses outside Maroondah Hospital, Melbourne. Photo: ANF Respect Our Work/Facebook

Twice daily outside almost every Victorian public hospital there are nurses protesting and waving banners in a spirited display of defiance.

They are not being incited by their union. They are walking off the job for four hours at a time, demanding a pay rise and defending the very essence of quality public health. A brief scouring of social media or talkback radio shows that Victorians love nurses, despite government propaganda to the contrary.

Officially, 1500 nurses at 15 public hospitals are taking part in the dispute, even though they were ordered back to work on February 24 by Fair Work Australia, and the Federal Court ordered their officials off site on February 28.

The Baillieu Coalition government now appears to be impotent in the face of the nurses’ action and groundswell of public support. They have asked for a one-week adjournment in the Federal Court while they collect information about Australian Nursing Federation (ANF) officials’ behaviour that may constitute contempt of court orders.

ANF lawyer Robert Richter QC told the court that the Victorian Hospitals Industry Association (VHIA) wanted to single out individuals and was engaged in a “political vendetta”.

Nurses risk individual fines of up to $6600, and the union risks fines of up to $33,000, for breaching the Fair Work Act. They face potentially greater fines, imprisonment or confiscation of property if they are found guilty of contempt of court charges by the Federal Court.

VHIA chief executive Alec Djoneff said (archived by Internet Archive 02/03/2012) there was some indication that ANF officials were continuing to support and encourage the industrial action, but that required further proof.

“Clearly [the ANF] Facebook page is replete with encouragement and support, which to me is contrary to the spirit of the orders,” he said on March 2.

ANF Victorian branch secretary Lisa Fitzpatrick denied that the union had breached the court order. AAP reported that she said: “We don’t live, I understand, in a dictatorship, and we will not have our members gagged, and we will be vigorously defending [suggestions] that there should be any taking down or censoring of what our members say.”

On March 1, the ANF said: “Baillieu government-paid lawyers wrote to ANF solicitors last night demanding ANF delete nurses’ and midwives’ posts from the Facebook campaign page.

“The letter seeks that ANF immediately delete from the Facebook site any and all comments which organise, advise or assist the taking of industrial action by ANF members or which aid, threaten or propose to engage in such conduct.”

The Victorian union movement is watching this dispute with great interest. Victoria’s nurses are challenging Australia’s anti-union industrial relations system.

Throughout the past eight months, the Baillieu government has forced the ANF to play a cat and mouse game.

The ANF at first tried to run its dispute through the legal channels of the Fair Work Act. The government then used the act to force nurses to lift their legal industrial action before the end of last year. If the nurses had not complied they would have been forced into compulsory arbitration, which meant they risked losing their nurse patient ratios — a critical issue for all nurses.

As a result, they have now been forced to take unprotected industrial action. This means their action is not sanctioned by FWA. So when nurses ignored the ruling ordering them back to work on February 24, the government was forced to move to the Federal Court.

The court’s February 28 ruling restrained ANF officers, employees, delegates and agents from essentially inciting their members to withdraw their labour.

The court also forced the ANF to publish an update on their official website, Facebook webpage and twitter account saying that the unprotected action had been cancelled. The ANF complied with the order.

However, by February 29 nurses were walking out of hospitals independently, backed by volunteers from many other union and community backgrounds. This is what the Baillieu government is now seeking to end.

But it is not easy to stuff the genie back into the bottle. For example, rank-and-file firefighters, building workers, metal workers, teachers and many other workers have been visiting the protests daily.

Even hospital patients have joined nurses and have sat outside on the street in solidarity.

In one case, firefighters were ordered not to attend or show solidarity with nurses by their management. However, rank-and-file firefighters told one source that coincidentally there then appeared to be an increase of fire calls and gas leaks near most public hospitals.

In fact, every time the government tries to intimidate the nurses, such as its call to suppress comments on the ANF Facebook site, this increases the levels of disgust and protest.

Fitzpatrick said on March 1: “Nurses have long been suspicious that the Baillieu government actually employs people whose only job is to sit in front of a computer and delete critical comments on government social media sites.

“Gagging nurses and midwives will not resolve this dispute.

“I again call on Baillieu to be the man he was in opposition four years ago when he called on the previous premier to stop being confrontational and take the conciliation path to resolve this dispute.”


Nice to know someone is letting it be known the public are behind the nurses
There has been very little attention in the media giving the the true facts regarding nurse/patient ratios. Any media attention you can give showing the support for nurses will be greatly appreciated. The actual ratios when the nurses walk out, are the ratios suggested by the Baillieu government. All the nurses want is for Mr Baillieu's government to sit down and negotiate with them, and not use their bullying tactics as they currently are.
I support the nurses. They are overworked, underrated and underpaid. The Victorian government's attack on their wages and conditions is despicable. The unfair work act is a bias joke. It's time to challenge this illegitimate piece of garbage that isn't worth the paper that it is written on.
I have been Nursing for over 35 years the ballieiu government would have to be the worst the nurses have ever had to negoitate with. They are using the legal system to BULLY the nurses to accept unsafe,antiquated working conditions.If the Balieu government wins, patient care will really suffer. Many nurses will leave the profession and we w ill go back to a system where patient care and safety will be severely compromised. We as nurses place our patient first. We bargained for nurse patient ratios instead of a decent payrise and now they want to remove them. We are the worst payed nurses in Australia, but we put up with that to retain our ratios. If the government win, you will see a mass exodus of nurses from nursing. Overseas recruited nurses will return to their homeland and the government will have to spent milllions if not billions to fix the problem they have created. The same thing happened when kennet was in government. GOD HELP THE PATIENTS
It is hard to believe that as an Australian nurse working in Victoria, I don't have freedom to speak out and advocate for my patients without breaking the law. Fair Work Australia ordered our protected industrial action to cease in November 2011, so I complied. Without any industrial action, the government withdrew from the EBA negotiations. They were not required to answer for their actions. They continue to be unaccountable to Victorians in regards to their ongoing underfunding of health services. It seems the Baillieu government doesn't have to answer to anybody when, as a result of budget cuts, patients have operations cancelled by the Health Service, patients are discharged too early, and many patients actually end up becoming very unwell before they can even receive a service from the public hospital, which is especially the case in the specialty I work in - mental health. Instead, the government spend millions dollars on lawyers to fight my Union in this EBA dispute (which are tax payer funds, and could actually be better spent within the hospitals). They also try to infer that this EBA dispute is about pay and claim that the 'ANF is being a militant union who directs us what to do'. Anyone who knows a nurse, most of which are the ANF (we are members therefore are the ANF) would recognise this as spin and also agree that we are intelligent people who can make our own decisions. In fact, it is members of the ANF that direct Lisa Fitzpatrick what she must do for us! What nurses want is for patients to receive nursing care from qualified nurses, NOT Health Assistants. We beleive that you can't substitute nurses, and no government should be able to implement something that puts patients health and well being at risk. This is the fight of my career, and I'm not planning to step down. I put much more value on the life of patients to walk away from this.
If the majority of the public is behind the nurses then it would behoove the people in authority to take a closer look at things. Nurses are so precious to our health and should be treated with respect.
  There is no reason for those that hold the monetary power to not listen to the public when they are compromising at home and when there is a clear need for more monies for nurses.

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