What's a nurse worth?

Issue 

BY TOM FLANAGAN Picture

SYDNEY — Thousands of NSW nurses converged on the Sydney Town Hall for a stop-work meeting on October 18. The town hall meeting, filled to overflowing, was broadcast by Skychannel to similar meetings around the state. The NSW Nurses' Association's (NSWNA) first statewide strike in 10 years, the meeting was its biggest ever and the mood was very determined.

With the slogan "What's a nurse worth?", the NSWNA's campaign aims to solve the problem of the shortage of nurses in NSW by winning improved wages and conditions. The October 18 meeting followed three months of work bans, stop work meetings and rallies throughout NSW.

The NSW government acknowledges the shortage of nurses, but, as NSWNA general secretary Sandra Moait told the meeting, it hasn't been able to solve the problem. It has rejected the NSWNA request to initiate a case before the NSW Industrial Relations Commission aimed at improving nurse wages and conditions. The response of the Nurses Association is to run the case itself.

"Something has to be done to reverse the flow of nurses out of the profession", Moait told the meeting. While the NSW government admits that there are 1600 vacancies, Moait pointed out that these figures only count positions that are actively being recruited for. When a hospital or an area health service gives up on trying to recruit to a position it is no longer counted as a vacancy. NSW Health's website shows that 2500 full-time positions are currently being filled by casual or agency nurses.

Moait described the realities of nurses' workplaces: excessive overtime and double shifts. Staff on sick leave, annual leave and maternity leave aren't being replaced. There was a roar of agreement when Moait said: "There is a failure to recognise that nurses are people with ordinary social and family needs."

The NSWNA is seeking to remedy the situation with a 15% pay claim, pointing out that nurses at the top of the pay scale are paid $70-100 less than other health professionals with a similar level of training. This gap has opened up again since NSW nurses forced pay rates up to the levels of hospital therapists in 1990.

The government justifies its refusal to consider the claim on the grounds that NSW nurses are in the middle of a wages agreement that is delivering 16% over four years. But according to the NSWNA "nurses are voting with their feet" and the situation must be addressed now. The 15% claim is in addition to the current agreement.

The NSWNA is also proposing a qualification allowance of $40-75 per week to partially compensate the new costs of tertiary education. The union also argues for a retention allowance of $10,000 for two years of service and $5000 for each additional year to encourage nurses to remain in the profession.

The claim was lodged with the NSW Industrial Relations Commission on October 17. The NSWNA expects NSW Health to refuse to negotiate any increase, in which case the claim will become the subject of arbitration. It is unlikely to be finalised until well into next year.

At the end of the town hall meeting the nurses emerged onto George Street carrying hundreds of placards and banners and loudly chanting their demands. They marched to NSW Parliament House receiving cheers from pedestrians and much supportive honking from passing motorists.