The Western Australian Industrial Relations Commission (WAIRC) still appears to be considering fining the Australian Nursing Federation WA (ANF WA) $350,000 for taking strike action as part of its enterprise bargaining campaign last November.
The ANF organised a one day state-wide strike on November 25 in which thousands of nurses and midwives rallied outside Parliament House and the WA Department of Health building.
The WAIRC said the union had breached orders not to organise a membership ballot on whether or not to take strike action. The union’s membership voted to support the state-wide stoppage.
Incredibly, WAIRC lawyer Maria Saraceni used her opening statement on April 11 to compare the union’s refusal to abide by the commission’s orders with the actions of Adolf Hitler.
The WAIRC is claiming the union’s membership breached 3590 orders and Secretary Janet Reah breached one. This includes the allocation of strike pay for union members, who cancelled their shift to participate in the stoppage.
The ANF claims it has been threatened with fines that could amount to as much as $27 million.
The WAIRC, through its lawyer, said on April 11 that the ANF needed to be made an example of to ensure it and other unions toe the line.
The WAIRC continues to threaten the ANF with de-registration: the union covers more than 30,000 nurses and midwives across WA.
Since this threat, the union’s EBA campaign has ground to a halt. Funds formerly allocated to strikes and demonstrations have been diverted to radio advertisements, which have also not materialised.
Health Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson told the ABC on April 11 that the WAIRC’s investigations into the ANF are “entirely” a matter for commission, adding “everyone has to listen to the independent umpire”.
Yet Labor requested the WAIRC intervene in the ANF’s EBA negotiations, presumably with the objective of either pressuring the union to cease strike action, or punish it for following the democratically-expressed agreement by members to take industrial action.
Labor Premier Mark McGowan described the nurses and midwives’ strike last year as “unlawful and criminal”.
The WAIRC has not commented on the government’s wage offer to public sector workers — which amounts to a near 5% cut after inflation amid a cost-of-living crunch.
The attacks on the right of unions to organise to defend their rights highlights how difficult it is for unions to even take protected industrial action during negotiations on a new agreement.
If unions can be threatened with crippling fines and de-registration even when seeking limited strike action during negotiations for an agreement, the right to strike is effectively dead.
The union movement needs to show solidarity with the ANF. It cannot look away because a Labor government is behind these attacks.
Unions’ right to strike must be defended and extended, and all laws restricting unions’ powers to defend their members must be torn up.
[Chris Jenkins is a nurse and a member of the Health Services Union.]