Sue Bolton, Melbourne
Faced with intransigence from Victorian Premier Steve Bracks' Labor government, an April 20 mass meeting of public hospital nurses voted to reject the government's "offer" to remove previously won working conditions. The nurses voted to implement bans from 7am on April 21.
By April 24, the bans had closed about 600 hospital beds and cancelled about 200 operations.
The Australian Nursing Federation (ANF) is campaigning for a 20% pay increase over 30 months. The Bracks government is resisting granting any state public sector workers pay increases above 2.25% per year.
However, the government isn't just trying to prevent nurses from improving their pay and conditions. It is trying to strip back a major improvement in working conditions that nurses won in their 2000 enterprise bargaining agreement — a minimum ratio of one nurse to four patients.
According to ANF Victorian secretary Lisa Fitzpatrick, no other nurses in Australia have achieved such a significant improvement in working conditions. Despite the worldwide shortage of nurses, the nurse-patient ratio in Victoria has resulted in up to 4000 nurses returning to Victorian public hospitals.
Prior to the implementation of the current nurse-patient ratio, up to 400 hospital beds were closed across Victoria because of the shortage of nursing staff.
A survey of Victorian nurses by the Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research and Training found that 52% would resign or retire from the industry if the existing nurse-patient ratio wasn't maintained.
In an April 22 ANF media release, Fitzpatrick stated: "Our initial claim sought improvements to nurses' wages and conditions, but once again we are being forced to fight for existing conditions so we can care for patients safely.
"In addition to fighting to maintain nurses' ability to provide safe patient care in our hospitals and psychiatric services, the government has now revealed that it intends to replace nurses with unqualified staff to care for elderly and vulnerable residents in public aged care beds."
Fitzpatrick pointed out that the bed closures resulting from the bans are similar to the number that might be closed as a result of under-staffing if the government gets its way with abolishing the existing nurse-patient ratio.
Victorian paramedics have threatened to strike unless the government improves on its 2.25% pay offer.
Despite the government's protest that it can't afford to pay any more to its workers, it released an economic statement on April 20 that commits it to reduce land tax revenues by $1 billion and to cut $900 million in employers' WorkCover premiums.
From Green Left Weekly, April 29, 2004.
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