By Tracy Sorensen
SYDNEY — A one-day strike organised by NSW health unions on October 15 to protest against cuts and closures in the public health system was supported by more than 90% of workers in the sector.
About 80,000 NSW health workers stopped work. A lunchtime rally outside Parliament House was attended by about 10,000 nurses and allied health workers.
Protest activity took place in other NSW centres, including Dubbo, Orange, Lismore, Goulburn, Wagga Wagga, Albury and Griffith.
The strike was called by the NSW Nurses Association, the Public Service Association and the Health and Research Employees Association.
The public health system is under attack on two fronts: federal and state. With its $2.50 "co-payment", the federal Labor government has begun dismantling Medicare — a task a federal Liberal government can be expected to finish.
Meanwhile, the Greiner Liberal government has closed Wallsend and Marrickville hospitals. Sydney Hospital and the Royal Hospital for Women are under immediate threat of ward cuts or closure. Other hospitals on the hit list include St Joseph's and Prince Henry.
According to the NSW Nurses Association, the government's grand plan is to halve the number of hospital beds in the state by the year 2000.
The effect of the drive to improve "productivity" in hospitals during the '80s, says Louise Ashelford, Nurses Association branch delegate at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, has been to shorten patient stays and increase stress on nurses.
"Patients are now more acutely ill while they're in hospital, and therefore nursing workloads have increased", she told Green Left.
Government promises to transfer services from Sydney's inner suburbs to the western suburbs were empty, she said. There was little evidence that this was happening. "It's so important that the public become aware of the situation so that they can join the protest.
"We went on strike because we believe that this government is basically destroying health services in NSW."
Getting nurses out on strike was a difficult organisational exercise, she said, not because health workers were reluctant, but because everyone wanted to strike.
"Because of the acute nature of the patients in hospitals these days, we couldn't do a total walkout. We left a skeleton staff, and that's incredibly difficult to organise when you've got a highly unionised workforce who all want to strike." From a feminist point of view, said Ashelford, it was essential to defend the public health sector. "It's worthwhile noting that most of the workforce in hospitals are women. Many of the non-nursing positions, such as catering and cleaning, are held by migrant women."