Health sector strike: interview with rank-and-file activists

The interview below was conducted with members of the rank-and-file Health Sector Workers Network who belong to the nurses’ union (the NZNO).

Philip Ferguson: What have been the key issues in the nurses’ dispute with the DHBs?

Health Sector Workers Network actvists: They really are two-fold.

There are the issues around safe staffing, which with chronic staff shortages, have seen Nurses, Midwives and HCAs working in dangerously unsafe working environments.  In many worksites, particularly the Emergency Departments and Mental Health facilities, there are daily incidents of verbal and physical abuse and assault of staff.

The ability to give excellent patient care without the need for care rationing will only be possible with more staff and clear patient-staff ratios.

Pay equity is the other important issue that members are passionate about.  The need to have remunerations that reflect skills and responsibilities is essential.  We need staff retention and the ability to attract new people to the profession.  If this doesn’t occur, Nurses, Midwives and HCAs will look elsewhere for better wages and conditions, like jumping the ditch to Australia.  Already nurses are leaving on an almost daily basis, resulting in chronic staff shortages and if these issues aren’t addressed it will only get worse.

PF: How successful has the industrial action been?

HSWN: There have been mixed feelings on the success of the strike action.  Due to this dispute being in an essential service and the fact there is a requirement under the Employment Relations Act to provide life-preserving services (LPS), many areas were still staffed, with a number of union members required to work.  These numbers were negotiated between District Health Boards (DHBs) and the NZ Nurses Organisation.

Many areas actually had more staff doing LPS than normally present on a given shift, which is a clear example of the staff shortages, and is something we think NZNO should be making a lot of noise about, particularly given it was the DHBs themselves that consider LPS to be the level of staff required for patient care and safety.  With LPS staffed above the normal numbers in many areas, surely that is an admission and proof of short staffing.

There were also 17 NZ Defence Force nurses deployed in a number of Emergency Departments and this sets a worrying precedent of bringing the military into industrial disputes.

In terms of the strike, there were many pickets and marches around the country with great public support.  The feeling on the picket line was inspiring and hopeful, with a significant turnout of  NZNO members, supported by members from other unions and the public.  Many felt energised and proud to be taking this stand and asking for more.  With the enthusiasm present, we felt we could achieve anything.

There has been a general feeling that the strike action has had a big impact in terms of showing the government and DHBs that we weren’t going to put up with the status quo any longer.  The feeling amongst many members was that more strikes would be necessary.  NZNO head office seem to have had other ideas and it has been disappointing to not even enter into the process of balloting members around the possibility of more strike action.

PF: What happened with the DHB offers?  Could you tell us something about the official union responses and the nurses’ own responses to these offers.

HSWN: Well, to date there have been five offers.  Four have been rejected and we are currently voting on the fifth.

Every offer has been rejected because members have felt they haven’t addressed the issues relating to safe staffing or pay equity.  Members wish to see concrete improvements now, not promises for down the road.

All but one offer has been recommended by the negotiating team and, with every offer being rejected, this clearly shows a disconnect between what members think is a good deal and what the union officialdom does.

We have seen DHBs release offer details to the media before NZNO members have even had a chance to see the offer.  This has really angered many members and was a clear breach of ‘good faith bargaining’ which the union failed to make traction on. And this is a key issue, if not the crux of the whole reason to reject the offers.

The pay equity process has no guarantees and is asking members to make a ‘leap of faith’.  Yes it may result in the nursing job being scoped to show that remuneration should equal that of a plumber or electrical engineer but what guarantees do we have that this will actually translate into dollars in pay packets?  With a DHB sector that can’t even show us the respect to follow ‘good faith bargaining’ principles in the middle of a negotiation why should members trust that the pay equity process will be anything different?

The union officialdom is not listening to the need for immediacy.  Health care workers are at breaking point and want some tangible sign that they are being listened to.  Yes, we understand the potential that comes with a pay equity process.  Yes, we understand the potential that CCDM may bring but show us you mean it by giving us the full pay rise now.  Implement the extra pay scale steps now.

Nurses, midwives and health care assistants are the life force of our health system; we don’t need to be drip-fed like we are on life support – we need a decent pay shock to resuscitate and revive our ability to care for the wellbeing of all New Zealanders!

PF: The union head office now seems to be agreeing with the government and saying there is no money in the pot and nurses should just accept that.  What is your attitude to this?

HSWN: Yes, this is something that many members have an issue with. The Health Sector Workers Network feel that it is not the business of the union to support the government but to support members in their struggle.  If members and the union were one and the same this would be the case; however there is a huge disconnect between members and the union bureaucracy.

For the union to come out saying, essentially, that members should accept the offer because there is no more government money available, they are asking members to surrender when there is plenty of fight left in them.

The capitulation and betrayal of members by the union bureaucracy has been widely felt, especially as a result of the union CEO speaking with the media, saying the offer is amazing and members should be accepting it.  It is not lost on members that the union CEO is an ex-DHB CEO!

The media have picked up and run with this message, with some media outlets having headlines saying NZNO members have accepted the offer.

This has caused confusion publicly and has undermined the ability of members to reject the offer and continue fighting.

There is money available.  The government have already boasted that their surplus is better than expected but also continues to hold on to their fiscal restraint policy, the Budget Responsibility Rules (BRR).  This austerity policy would see health, education and housing needs play second fiddle to the Labour’led government’s attempts to impress the business community that they are fiscally responsible managers of capitalism.

Not only that, we have seen the government allocate extra Defence funding. To quote from a recent article on Redline:

“Budget 2018 provides $367.7m in extra operating funding to Defence portfolios over the next four years, underpinned by an extra $324.1m for the NZDF operating budget.

“And we’ve just had the example of the government spending $(NZ)2.3 billion on planes that can hunt submarines and are ‘war-ready’.”

There is also over $5 million going to Emirates Team NZ, for the rich’s Auckland yacht race in 2021.

Let us also not forget the disparity in wealth in NZ: “just two New Zealanders, Graeme Hart and Richard Chandler, have more wealth than the poorest 30 per cent of the adult population;

“10 per cent of New Zealanders own more than half the nation’s wealth.”

There is money available, it’s just in the wrong hands.

PF: What would be an alternative way forward?

HSWN: We believe the way forward is in NZNO members expanding the struggle. If NZNO members were to organise cross-union and align strike actions with teachers and other public sector/service workers, if cross-union cooperation picketed Labour Party offices, the fiscal restraint could be loosened and the purse strings opened.

In turn, this would inspire other workers in struggle for better wages and conditions to take similar action.  We are seeing a strike wave in NZ at the moment and these actions could have the ability to intensify the class struggle and help all workers, employed and unemployed, fight and gain significant improvements in the lives and well-being of all NZ’s working class.

Within NZNO there is a rank and file group forming with a kaupapa dedicated to transforming the union into a truly member-led rank and file-controlled workers’ organisation.  So watch this space. . .

Further reading: The interests of nurses versus the interests of the Labour-led government

Check out the Health Sector Workers Network site, here.