Victorian nurses crowded into Festival Hall in Melbourne on March 16 to hear their nine months of struggle had reached a successful outcome.
After what the ABC said was Victoria’s longest running industrial dispute, nurses have won 14-21% pay increases and kept their nurse-to-patient ratios in return for minor productivity offsets.
Australian Nursing Federation (ANF) secretary Lisa Fitzpatrick said: “This is a bittersweet victory for nurses and midwives after an unprecedented industrial marathon with the Baillieu government to protect patient care and secure a fair pay rise."
The agreement has not led to steep wages rises, but it means none of the Baillieu government’s plans to worsen conditions for nurses and patients will be carried out. Fitzpatrick said: “Health assistants will not replace nurses as part of the ratios and hospitals will not be introducing unlimited four-hour shifts or split shifts.”
There were also some improvements in the agreement. Nurse-to-patient ratios have been improved in rehabilitation wards and oncology units. A professional development allowance has been introduced, which gives nurses an extra $1000 this year and $900 in later years.
The ANF also said that the inclusion of Victoria’s 38 stand-alone community health centres in the agreement was a vital win. The Baillieu government had tried to exclude these services from the agreement.
The productivity offsets include a clause that allows employers to staff below normal nurse-to-patient ratios in limited cases. These cases must take into account patient wellbeing and nurses’ satisfaction.
Nurses around Victoria were jubilant as the details of their victory emerged. This was reflected in comments posted to the ANF’s Facebook site, ANF: Respect our work.
Many nurses have also drawn political conclusions from the struggle. An hour after the nurses had voted to accept the agreement, one commented on the ANF site: “So what lesson can every other worker take from the nurses victory? Dare to struggle, dare to win! Congratulations to all nurses who stood strong in the face of ongoing bullying and intimidation from the state government.”
Fitzpatrick said: “Since October, more than 2000 nurses and midwives have joined the ANF union and I have seen the birth of more than 1000 activists who are very keen that this government is only in power for one term.”
Victorians have watched the dispute keenly. Most people supported the nurses’ bravery in the face of appalling attacks and have applauded the victory.
The struggle has also deepened some chinks in the anti-union Fair Work Australia system. It has shown that if workers unite, community support and are forced to take unprotected industrial action, then governments must decide if they will fine unions and jail workers in the face of mounting public concern.