Victorian nurses defy Work Choices and win

Issue 

5000 state sector nurses crammed into Melbourne's Festival Hall and voted unanimously to end their industrial action and accept a four year enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) at an Australian Nursing Federation (ANF) mass meeting on October 25.

They greeted their state secretary, Lisa Fitzpatrick, with rapturous applause as she outlined wage rises of between 3.8-6% per year, the maintenance and — in some cases — improvement of nurse-patient ratios, an increase in nursing numbers and a raft of other improvements.

The vote brought to an end the nine days of industrial action that had closed over 1000 beds across the state and cancelled most elective surgery. Nurses had remained steadfast despite widespread intimidation from managements and the docking of their pay.

The dispute has demonstrated that workers can defy the Work Choices laws and win, as the nurses withstood threats of legal action and even jailing by taking unprotected industrial action. Premier Brumby had even referred to their actions as illegal.

The ANF estimates that some 600 nurses have been docked up to 60% of their pay for participating in the industrial action. A theatre nurse reported to the ABC that she had been docked for eight hours of a 10-hour shift.

This is despite nurses working throughout their shifts and if they had time available, assisting in emergency departments. At one facility, after informing nurses that their pay would be docked, management offered to provide counselling to nurses who were upset.

Many militant unionists in Victoria have been keenly aware of the importance of the nurses' action. On arrival at Festival Hall the nurses were overwhelmed to find a guard of honour from some 600 unionists representing many unions to greet them.

Some nurses were so happy at the sight of this support it brought tears to their eyes. As one nurse said, "It made us feel like heroines. We were so proud. At that stage we didn't know about the new EBA offer. So all this solidarity and unity gave us the extra energy to continue the fight. We were determined at that stage to fight on."

The new EBA meets many of the ANF's demands. Importantly it includes the protection of nurse-patient ratios of 1:4 and the improvement of ratios in areas such as emergency departments and post and ante-natal care.

The agreement includes the removal of what is known as the "50% rule" which allows managements to staff over or under the mandated 1:4 ratios if the number of patients is not divisible by four. For example, if there are 18 patients on a ward, management can decide to have four nurses instead of five, meaning that some nurses will be allocated more than four patients.

Fitzpatrick reported to the mass meeting that the government has agreed to increase the number of nurses by 300 and reconfigure wards in order to remove the 50% rule by May 2008. Nurses laughed when Fitzpatrick told them that the government wanted to change the term "50% rule" to the new "workload management enhancement program".

Many regional hospitals will be reclassified resulting in increased staffing levels. Additional nurses will also be employed in areas such as aged care, palliative care, geriatric evaluation and management (GEM) and smaller country hospitals.

Nurses also won increased paid maternity leave from eight to nine weeks from October 2007, increasing to 10 weeks after October 2008. Another important gain in the agreement is that childcare expenses will be paid for nurses who are called into work without 24 hours notice.

Importantly, the new agreement has stopped the introduction of unqualified health workers — personal care assistants — into the public hospital system. Victoria is the only state that doesn't have personal care assistants doing the work of nurses in public hospitals.

A significant victory for nurses and all workers is that this new EBA is recognised as a multi-employer agreement covering 148 different public health services, and not an individual employer agreement. This allows the ANF to pattern bargain despite it being illegal under Work Choices. The Victorian Labor government wanted the nurses to bargain separately with each of the 148 public health services.

When the ANF applied to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) on October 4 for a secret ballot to take protected industrial action, the secret ballot was rejected because the ANF was pattern bargaining. As well as being illegal under the Howard government, the Labor opposition has said that pattern bargaining will be illegal if it wins government in November.

The agreement included pay rises of between 3.6% per year and 6.06% per year, depending on nurses' level of classification. This will mean that Victorian state sector nurses are no longer the lowest paid in the country and graduate entry nurses will receive $48,724 at the end of the agreement, as opposed to the $39,536 they currently receive. This will be important in bringing new nurses into the public system.

However there were mixed responses to the pay offer from ANF members at the meeting, with a number of nurses expressing disappointment that they had not achieved the 6.5% per year for all nurses that they had campaigned for.

An important aspect of the campaign was that the ANF leadership insisted on union democracy. Fitzpatrick consistently put forward the ANF position in her media interviews that a decision to lift industrial action could not be made by the courts or the union officials but only by another statewide mass membership meeting.

During the course of the dispute, around 1000 nurses joined the union.