Geelong nurses speak out

October 26, 2007

Twenty-one years ago Jackie Kriz, an Australian Nurses Federation job representative, took part in Victoria's landmark nurses' dispute of 1986. As a young Geelong nurse she remembers the long campaign where nurses went from being professionals who would never strike to industrial campaigners.

Kriz told Green Left Weekly, "It really got down to the wire. We picketed every day for five or six weeks. It sent some of us broke ... [b]ut it taught us a lot about industrial campaigns and you can see the benefits of that strike in the way we are organised today."

Kriz and fellow ANF member Amanda Best are two of the job reps in Geelong who helped build and win another landmark nursing dispute. This time the Victorian ANF defied Howard's Work Choices laws and won.

The two agree that once nurses had decided to put on bans in support of their claims, it didn't take very long before the overwhelming majority of nurses began to participate. This was despite a statewide campaign of intimidation and harassment by hospital managements.

"No-one was prepared for the bullying tactics as it had never happened before. Nurses were told that if they proceeded with action they would be fined $6,000 or docked between four and eight hours pay," said Kriz. "The tactics used to tell us these things were really intimidating. Meanwhile middle management was being told that if they didn't enforce these Work Choices laws then they would be individually fined between $6,000 and $33,000."

According to Best, "This dirty play has come directly from [Howard's] dirty laws. A whole different culture has come about. Without these laws this would have been a normal EBA bargaining round. Not anymore!"

Meanwhile the nurses experienced unprecedented public support. The Geelong Advertiser reported on October 18 that patients had been ringing in their support for the nurses from their hospital beds. Best reported that when she walked around Geelong in her campaign T-shirt, people came up and wished her the best.

On October 22, 80 nurses held a rally in Geelong's main shopping centre. The rally had been organised by ANF job reps with the support of the Socialist Alliance. Hundreds of signatures of solidarity were collected during the rally. Chris Johnson, the Socialist Alliance's candidate for Corio, the Greens and Gavan O'Connor — the sitting member for Corio who was dumped by the ALP and is now running as an independent — spoke at the rally.

The major parties did not show the same sort of support. Industrial relations minister, Joe Hockey, said the nurses deserved better pay. But most rank and file nurses like Kriz and Best just wrote this off as opportunist electioneering.

As Best said, "What a hypocrite. They wrote these Work Choices laws that were used to intimidate us. We can't even be bothered thinking about the Liberals."

Nor was either impressed with the Labor Party. It was an ALP state government that they were in dispute with, but this government blamed the federal government for the industrial tactics adopted by their own managers.

So incensed were Kriz and Best by the behavior of the ALP that they contacted the local ALP candidate for the seat of Corio, Richard Marles, who had previously been an ACTU Assistant Secretary, asking for support.

Kriz explained, "I said ... that if he didn't start supporting nurses this would look very bad for Labor. Considering there's an election on and all. I told him that a lot of nurses had already said they would support Gavan O'Connor as Gavan has always been very supportive of the nurses and that we expected the same of him."

Marles said that he was considering his response and that it was the Work Choices laws that were to blame. No ALP politicians gave support to the nurses throughout the campaign.

Chris Johnson said, "We were disgusted at the treatment of the nurses and the role of the major parties. Why can't the ALP provide some minimum support? It's because their new industrial policies retain much of the Work Choices legislation that can be used to intimidate, fine and jail workers."

However Kriz believed that the bullying tactics backfired. She said, "The more we were bullied the more we wanted to stick it up them. In the end it wasn't even just about the pay and conditions, we wanted to get rid of Work Choices. You hear all the time about these laws and you don't really believe they can affect you, until you're hit like a brick.

"The real heroes of this campaign were the nurses working at the bedside in the general wards, emergency and aged care. These nurses closed beds and were intimidated more than others. Everyone will benefit from their strong action. You see there are whole other sectors of the health industry that are still negotiating EBAs. Like in the psychiatric units the ANF is only one of the unions involved. We didn't even close beds there, we just had admin bans which didn't affect patient care at all but we withstood some really serious bullying. Hopefully the other unions will be spared this now that we have won."

Commenting on the outcomes from the nurses' mass meeting on October 25, Kriz said, "Most people were euphoric, even the ones who hadn't gained much, because the campaign has made us feel powerful. We stood up to the intimidation and we achieved a great outcome".

On October 26, The Geelong Trades Hall held a victory BBQ for the nurses. Dozens of construction workers came down in their lunch break and donated thousands of dollars that they had collected off their jobs to give to the nurses for their campaign. As one construction worker said, "These nurses did a great job. We're just so proud of them."

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