Thousands of New South Wales nurses and midwives went on strike for 24 hours on March 31 as part of their ongoing campaign for safe nurse-to-patient ratios in public hospitals.
About 5000 nurses gathered in the Sydney CBD and marched to state parliament for a mass rally, chanting “What do we want? Ratios! When do we want them? Now!”
Strikes and partial stoppages were held at 160 hospitals around NSW that day, with more than 20 other rallies in urban and regional centres across the state. The NSW Nurses and Midwives Association (NSWNMA) is seeking nurse-to-patient ratios on every shift, a 4.75% pay rise, a boost to maternity ward staffing and an allowance for nurses working in regional and rural hospitals.
NSWNMA general secretary Brett Holmes told the crowd: “We said we’d be back, and here we are — more determined than ever.” The NSWNMA held a strike six weeks earlier but, despite discussions with the state government, no progress has been made on the ratios issue he said.
“If they don’t negotiate, we will be back here again and again.” Holmes said that Victoria has had nurse-to-patient ratios for decades, along with Queensland and the ACT and that the new South Australian Labor government has committed to introducing them.
NSWNMA Yass regional president Paul Haines told the crowd: “We want to send the state government a message that we will no longer tolerate the gross underfunding of the system. We face an increase in patient numbers, but no increase in staffing.
“In regional hospitals, standards are slipping, nurses are burnt out and leaving their jobs. We must stand and fight for improved conditions for our patients and ourselves.”
Sarah Webb, a registered nurse from a remote rural area hospital in Warren, said: “We have no doctor on site, and no security. Rural nurses are suffering, our mental health is in crisis, having to make life or death decisions with inadequate support. The system is broken. We need urgent action now.”
More than 3000 nurses and supporters marched in rainy Newcastle, in a rowdy and angry rally. There was a plethora of original, pointed signage.
The Maitland Mental Health branch secretary told the rally nurses have a professional obligation to provide safe care. She said the staffing levels are so unsafe that nurses had no option but to strike and demand safe staffing ratios.
NSWNMA acting director of strategy and transformation Michael Whaites gave a moving tribute to nurses and midwives in the union’s Lismore branch. He said they have to face the health dangers that the flood brings, and then go home at the end of a day to deal with it. “They know that when this crisis passes they will return to a ‘normal’ [work conditions], that is simply not right.”
Paula Sanchez, a long-time nurse educator and Socialist Alliance candidate for the NSW Senate, told Green Left it is important for nurses to strike again “to stand up for the rights of staff and patients”.
“The COVID-19 crisis showed up the overall failures of the health care system,” she said. “We must strive to avoid nurse overwork and burnout.
“The overall under-staffing issue has been worsened by the new wave of COVID-19. Nurses, and other allied health staff, are forced onto sick leave and not replaced — which leads to double and triple shifts.
“The creeping privatisation of the public health system must cease. Medicare is being undermined by private health insurance and extra payments. Our public health system must be defended and improved.”