Victorian nurses defy Baillieu, Fair Work Australia

Nurses walk out of Geelong hospital, February 25. Photo: Tim Gooden

After Victorian nurses walked off the job from six Victorian hospitals, Ted Baillieu's state government was still refusing to undertake effective negotiations with the Australian Nursing Federation (ANF).

The dispute has dragged on for eight months and has been in its current conciliation process under Fair Work Australia (FWA) for 105 days.

On February 24, the FWA ordered the ANF to stop all industrial action as sought by the government. But the ANF has said it will go ahead with its actions as decided on by members at a mass meeting on February 25.

At the mass meeting, the nurses agreed to take unprotected industrial action, starting with rolling four-hour stoppages twice a day. They decided on unprotected action to avoid forced arbitration under the Fair Work Act. Only the termination of protected industrial action can lead to forced arbitration.

The action began with the walkout of 700 nurses from the Royal Melbourne, Dandenong and Footscray hospitals on February 24. Three new hospitals will join the stoppages each day, which means more and more nurses will walk off the job.

Nurses are leaving minimum nursing levels on each ward to show the big problems with Baillieu’s “ratios with flexibility”. The government is pushing to end nurse/midwife patient ratios by replacing nurses with a minimum of three years' training with health assistants who have three months' training. It also wants to replace nurses’ eight-hour shifts with unlimited four-hour shifts.

ANF Victorian branch secretary Lisa Fitzpatrick said on February 22: “Nurses and midwives will never agree to Baillieu’s world of ending ratios, staffing according to how much money the hospital has rather than patient safety, and substituting qualified nurses with underqualified and unregulated health assistants.”

Geelong, Frankston and Northern hospitals joined the stoppages on February 25. Ballarat, St Vincent’s and Maroondah hospitals were due to follow on February 26.

ANF assistant secretary Pip Carew greeted the nurses at Geelong hospital as they walked off the job. She said: “The government is using Fair Work Australia to fight nurses rather than to resolve this dispute.”

This was a reference to Federal Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten’s proposal to take part in the process and allow FWA to use different powers to end the dispute.

The process would involve all parties agreeing on a single FWA tribunal member to facilitate negotiations until a resolution is reached. This was how the Victorian nurses’ enterprise agreements were resolved in 1997, 2001, 2004 and 2007.

Carew said the ANF and the nurses could now face heavy fines for walking off the job. Baillieu has already threatened to fine individual nurses to try to bully them into submission.

Carew also mentioned theen tremendous support the nurses have received from other unions. For example, the Victorian branch of the Electrical Trades Union has donated $10,000 to the campaign.

Many unions and other observers are watching the nurses’ dispute with great interest and admiration. Apart from the building unions and disputes like the Baiada poultry workers dispute last year, there have been few unions brave enough to move outside FWA rules in recent years.

The nurses’ dispute is set to challenge the very basis of what many consider to be unjust laws.

Geelong based nurse Jackie Kriz told Green Left Weekly: “Among all the hype of the media coverage around the Gillard/Rudd circus, you could be forgiven for not noticing that there are really important principles being fought for by the nurses in Victoria.

“We face the potential of serious fines and perhaps even the jailing of our leaders if they are found in contempt of FWA, purely for defending our pay and working conditions.

“It’s all well and good for Bill Shorten to offer his support, but federal Labor has retained all these clauses that make our action illegal. It’s so wrong, but I think we’re up for the
challenge.”