The Western Australian government took the Australian Nursing Federation (ANF) WA to the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) on November 18 in a bid to stop the union from voting on its latest enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) offer.
The IRC subsequently ordered the ANF to cease the online survey of members. The Labor government’s current offer differs only marginally from the original 3% wage rise.
The ANF announced on November 15 it was cancelling strike action at Fiona Stanley Hospital as a pre-condition to finalising the government’s offer.
The union’s appointed CEO Mark Olsen had been actively promoting the low wage offer. This led to union members expressing their disappointment at a meeting that evening. The following day, union secretary Janet Reah condemned the offer at a media conference as insulting.
This dramatic about-turn came after a tidal wave of outrage by members led the secretary to promise a state-wide strike day affecting all hospitals if the latest EBA offer was rejected by the ANF membership.
Labor’s response to this was to organise an emergency session at the IRC, with the Commissioner declaring the online vote as invalid and criticising Reah’s comments as having negatively influenced the membership.
Reah has been ordered not to comment publicly on the government enterprise bargaining offer and the IRC has recommended that members be barred from accessing the ANF’s Facebook page.
These orders amount to an unprecedented attack on the rights of members to democratically organise and direct their union officials.
It also exposes the McGowan government’s hypocrisy claiming its offer is fair while taking such extreme measures to suppress members' rights to discuss or vote on it.
In real terms, the offer amounts to a significant wage cut — almost 5% once inflation is taken into account.
The IRC has set a date in January for the next meeting between the government and the ANF.
Members at an ANF Council meeting on November 16 voted to defy the IRC’s order and continue with the survey, which will conclude on November 22.
While the government may not acknowledge the validity of the vote, the ANF plans to start strike action within a week if members vote the offer down.
The question is how will Labor respond? Five hundred nurses and midwives were registered to strike at Fiona Stanley Hospital, before the action was cancelled.
Since then the government’s attempt to gag the union has only enraged members more.
If the offer is accepted by popular vote, the EBA campaign will end. If it is rejected, industrial action will escalate. There is every indication that the government will also ramp up its attacks on the ANF.
It will be essential to reach out to the broader union movement and progressive community organisations to defend union democracy.
This will present leaders of other unions with a quandary. Most unions are affiliated to the Labor Party through membership of Unions WA.
Many unions have not been willing to publicly challenge the government by rejecting its 3% pay offer across the public sector. Yet these gag attempts set a dangerous precedent that threatens the whole union movement.
However it plays out, the McGowan government has further eroded its popularity since the landslide election in 2020, which focused so much on the WA border policy in the name of supporting the healthcare sector and keeping the community safe.
[Chris Jenkins is a member of the ANF WA and the Socialist Alliance.]