On October 4, the Australian Nursing Federation (ANF) Victoria had its application for a secret ballot to vote on taking industrial action rejected by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC). The application was on behalf of almost 30,000 public sector nurses.
The AIRC decision followed a meeting of 1500 public sector nurses on October 1, which rejected the Victorian government's proposed wage rise of 3.25% a year over five years and the proposal to scrap the current mandated minimum nurse/patient ratios by allowing management the discretion to staff under this ratio. The meeting brought together nurses from across the state, including Mildura, Ballarat, Geelong and Bendigo.
On October 4, ANF Victorian branch secretary Lisa Fitzpatrick said: "This comes as no surprise to me or to Victoria's nurses, as Work Choices outlaws protected industrial action being taken in support of a single agreement covering more than one employer when you are pattern bargaining, and makes it all but impossible to pursue common wages and conditions for nurses, even though they do the same work in each hospital.
"I can assure the Victorian public that our nurses won't deviate from this campaign, despite the removal of access to protected industrial action. Victorian nurses have made it clear to me that the pressure on them is so great, that if they are to provide safe and quality care to the Victorian community workloads and salaries must be addressed properly."
"Nurses will leave the system in droves if [these issues] are not [addressed], and Premier [John] Brumby's current wage offer and refusal to maintain and improve nurse/patient ratios will only make things worse", she said.
"Nurses will proceed with a statewide stop work meeting on 16 October 2007 and I expect that if a significantly revised offer is not provided by the Brumby government before that meeting, sadly nurses will have no choice but to proceed with their campaign.
"Nurses are not strangers to taking unprotected industrial action, having had to resort to this to protect patients in 1997, 2000 and 2001. I know that metropolitan nurses will not sit idly by and have their regional colleagues paid less and working under worse terms and conditions, and why should they?"
The current enterprise bargaining agreements for state sector nurses ended on September 30, and the ANF has been negotiating with the Brumby Labor government since May for one agreement to cover the state's 146 public health service employers and another for the 23 employers of mental health nurses. This may be regarded as pattern bargaining and be illegal under the Work Choices legislation, despite state sector nurses having only one actual employer — the state government.
The ANF is campaigning for a pay rise of 18% over three years, and improvements in nurse/patient ratios. The government is claiming that nurses must demonstrate improvements in productivity to warrant a pay increase.
Nurses argue that this is an economic argument and shouldn't be applied to health care, where patient outcomes and quality of life should be the most important indicators of nurses' performance, not hospital budgets and the length of hospital stays.
Victoria has had a 25% increase in the number of hospital admissions and outpatients per 100 people over the past four years, and public hospitals have recorded a 12.3% increase in the birth rate over the last three years, while there has only been a 4.7% increase in the number of midwives.
According to Fitzpatrick: "Victorian nurses have the lowest pay in Australia, we have the biggest turnaround of patients in that their average stay is only 2.3 days, and we have the least number of nurses caring for those patients per capita."
Short hospital stays mean Victorian patients require the most acute nursing care. "You cannot keep increasing the pressure on Victorian nurses without serious consequences which will include compromised patient care and a nursing shortage", she said.
The ANF is also seeking a common law deed to protect entitlements from being negotiated away. This will include the ANF's right of entry to nurses' workplaces and trade union training leave.
The ANF has launched a major advertising campaign, including regional and metropolitan billboards, television and radio advertising and a Fund Nursing Properly campaign website giving nurses the opportunity to support each other during the campaign regardless of where they work.
The ANF will hold another mass meeting on October 16 to decide on industrial action.