Why WA nurses' struggle deserves our support


Ian Jamieson
& Sam Wainwright, Fremantle

A half day strike on February 23 — just three days before the state election — by Western Australian nurses has been averted following an agreement by Premier Geoff Gallop's Labor government to reopen negotiations with the Australian Nursing Federation (ANF).

The nurses have been locked in a nine-month fight with the government over pay and conditions.

From the beginning of the fight, the ANF has welcomed the government's offer of a 14.7% pay rise over three years but has insisted that it be coupled with increased funding for the hospital system to improve nurses' working conditions. The government's refusal to budge on this point is the crux of the dispute, even though the corporate media refers to it as a "pay dispute".

The government has clashed with other public sector unions, often spectacularly, but has for the most part got its way by threatening to suspend the bargaining period and have the agreements decided by the industrial courts. However, the nurses have refused to cave in, despite government threats and the vilification of their secretary, Mark Olsen.

Furthermore, 70% of nurses rejected an attempt by the government to get its proposal adopted as a non-union agreement when it put was to them in a December ballot.

What really set a cat among the pigeons was Coalition leader Colin Barnett's negotiation of a deal with the ANF. Should he win office, Barnett he has promised to match Labor's pay offer and to pump $50 million into the health system to improve nurses' working conditions.

Certainly Barnett is no friend of workers and made the offer to appear to voters as a "can-do" politician. However, in one fell swoop he has shown up the penny pinching pro-business policies of the Labor government. The proof of this was the speed with which the Chamber of Commerce and Industry condemned Barnett's offer.

The ANF is supporting six nurses standing in marginal electorates under the banner Nurses for Health. Because of the Coalition's superior offer, the Nurses for Health candidates are recommending a vote for the Coalition ahead of the Labor Party.

Having participated in some of the negotiations between the ANF and the government last year, ACTU president Sharan Burrow intervened on the side of the government on February 18, saying on ABC Radio National that the ANF should have accepted the government's offer months' ago. In response, Olsen said: "Sharan Burrow made promises she couldn't keep and I can certainly say that the proposal put forward as a result of those discussions is vastly inferior to many of the proposals that have come since, not just from the proposal put on the table by the Coalition."

It is an article of faith among much of the union officialdom that workers have to go quiet and not rock the boat in the lead-up to a state or federal election because this supposedly hurts Labor's chances. Pity the poor workers whose enterprise agreements expire just before an election — they're expected to meekly accept whatever the employer offers them.

While the Socialist Alliance fully supports the demands of the nurses and their union, we disagree with their decision to preference the Coalition ahead of Labor. As rotten as the Gallop government is, the election of a Coalition state government would be a setback for WA workers, even if the Coalition has better policies than Labor on some issues.

However, such criticism has to be put in context. Firstly, we recognise that in fighting for better working conditions, the ANF and its members are fighting for a better health care system for all of us. Secondly, nurses, like any other workers, should not have to trade off any of their conditions in return for a pay rise.

Furthermore, it's important to appreciate that the nurses have been fighting a lone battle. Neither UnionsWA nor any other union in WA has given the nurses the support they deserve. It should therefore not be surprising that the ANF has been casting around for allies wherever it can find them.

In this dispute only the nurses themselves can decide where and when they are prepared to settle with the government. The job for the rest of the union movement is to help strengthen their hand. All supporters of public health and any unionist worthy of the name should be giving the ANF claim 100% support.

What the nurses need is real solidarity in their battle with the government so they can get the best deal possible from their employer, regardless of which of the pro-big business parties — Labor or the Coalition — wins the state election.

[Ian Jamieson and Sam Wainwright are the Socialist Alliance's candidates for South Metropolitan Region in the February 26 WA election. Both are waterside workers and members of the Maritime Union of Australia.]

From Green Left Weekly, February 23, 2005.
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