The Australia Nursing Federation (ANF) Western Australia’s negotiating team declared on November 15 that rolling strike actions as part of its enterprise bargaining negotiations, set to begin the next day, had been cancelled.
Until now, Mark McGowan’s government has flatly refused to raise its wage offer above 3%. It also took the ANF to the Industrial Relations Commission on November 4 to try to end the union’s rolling actions.
Five hundred nurses and midwives at Perth’s flagship Fiona Stanley Hospital were gearing up for the November 16 stop work, only to learn the union executive had called it off.
WA Labor’s fourth enterprise bargaining offer is largely a repackage of its former rejected ones, with some extra garnishes.
The latest offer still represents a real pay cut, with only an extra $1000-$1200 offered to nurses at pay grades 1.8 and 2.4 respectively.
Labor also agreed to include babies “where clinically indicated”, within patient ratios, but not all babies.
ANF WA CEO Mark Olsen told members that the union’s online surveys provided negotiators with a mandate to stop industrial action while the fourth proposal was considered.
Olsen, who was appointed as CEO, claims almost 50% of the union supports the government’s third offer, and consequently the current one should be supported.
However, many members have pointed out the survey was online for less than 12 hours and the site kept crashing.
The fact that ANF WA members are being “consulted” via an online poll and not in face-to-face meetings also raises transparency concerns.
The ANF’s annual general meeting on November 16, promoted as evidence of its commitment to democracy, was the opposite.
The venue, its Perth office, could only include a fraction of members necessary to make the union’s 5% quorum — 1800 people.
Olsen argued that quorum is never reached, but the lack of effort to promote it made this a fait accompli. Even secretary Janet Reah failed to attend, despite being in the office before the meeting began.
Members expressed their frustration at the CEO and the absent secretary at the question-and-answer session that replaced the AGM. Many questions were not answered, including one about members being banned from the union’s social media page.
ANF members voted at a mass stop-work meeting on October 12 for a 10% annual pay rise (2.4% after inflation). Olsen said he had since been inundated by email about it being “greedy” and “unrealistic”.
When asked about his own pay, Olsen revealed it was a massive $166,000 a year — the highest level for a WA nurse. He terminated the meeting after an hour.
Many members feel betrayed and are furious at the union’s lack of accountability. They are also angry that Labor keeps asserting they deserve a pay cut.
The union is conducting another online poll on the new government offer from November 18–22. A mass meeting of members to discuss and vote on it is the only way of ensuring transparency.
The challenge for ANF WA members is to ensure the union works for them. This could be done via a network of workplace representatives to encourage discussion and undertake organisation at the ward level. Elected delegated conferences, that are accountable to the membership, are also needed.
The ANF executive has, to date, dismissed this. But elections for the second half of the council in 2024 are an opportunity to win support for a democratic structure.
[Chris Jenkins is a member of the ANF WA and the Socialist Alliance.]