The Guardian June 26, 2002


Nurses: worth looking after

Australian nurses are sick and tired, literally, and are fighting back 
in a big way against the Queensland and NSW State Governments which 
continue to ignore the value of the work done by nurses. Mass strike action 
is taking place in Queensland and an Industrial Relations Inquiry is 
underway in NSW.

Nurses are angry and determined, says Queensland Nurses' Union (QNU) 
Secretary, Gay Hawksworth.

"The Government cannot continue to run the public hospital system as a 
spartan arrangement. Given the mood of the nurses all the indications are 
that they are ready to take a strong stand over the issue", said Ms 
Hawksworth.

Over 16,000 nurses walked out last Thursday in the largest industrial 
action ever undertaken by nurses in Queensland. They are claiming a pay 
increase of 12 per cent over two years.

The Queensland Government however refused the nurses' claim point blank. It 
declared its offer of nine per cent over three years as final.

When pressed for an explanation the Government repeats as rote: there is no 
money in the budget.

At mass meetings during last Thursday's strike, Queensland public sector 
nurses voted to introduce more manageable work loads by closing up to one 
in four hospital beds.

Over 100 beds have already been closed with the majority of closures 
scheduled to start from Wednesday June 26.

As well as bed closures, other work bans are continuing at more than 80 
hospitals and health care facilities around the State.

The QNU launched its "Nurses: Worth Looking After" campaign in March this 
year, with the objective of building up Queensland's nursing workforce.

They are aiming for:

* increased wages for nurses; * workloads that are safe for both patients 
and staff; * affordable nurse education programs; * improved and safer 
workplace environments; and * the implementation of workforce planning 
strategies that address the needs of a predominately female and shift-
working workforce.

The Government's response so far suggests a lack of appreciation of the 
dire nature of the issues.

Minster Wendy Edmonds attempted to wash her hands of her responsibilities 
declaring: "It is not the role of the Health Minister to be in direct 
negotiations with the nurses".

Qld Premier Peter Beattie seems to be in complete denial that low wage 
rates and overwork are main causes of the nursing shortage.

He justifies the Government's paltry pay offer saying: "In the UK the pay 
increase in April this year was just over 3 per cent".

The Queensland Premier neglected to make the link with other statistics he 
provides in the same statement: "In the UK the shortage of nurses means 
they are trying to recruit 20,000 nurses by 2004. Thornbury Nursing 
Services in the UK says understaffing is up to 60 per cent".

Not just the nurses

Nurses are not alone in their anger at the Queensland Government.

More than 32,000 allied health staff are also expected to strike in the 
next week over the Government's delay in negotiating a new Enterprise 
Bargaining Agreement. There have been 18 months of fruitless negotiations 
and the current EBA expired on May 31.

Frustrated by Government inaction the 10 unions involved have given notice 
of over 200 separate industrial actions about to take place across the 
State.

Queensland doctors are also set to join the struggle and have announced a 
one-day stoppage to take place on July 1.

They say the new medical indemnity measures put in place by the Federal 
Government to protect them after the collapse of the medical insurance 
company UMP are unsatisfactory.

The action will involve up to 30 per cent of the State's doctors, with an 
expected 97 per cent walkout on the Gold and Sunshine Coasts, and 100 per 
cent in Gladstone.

Doctors have advised that anyone requiring urgent medical attention should 
present themselves at their local public hospital.

NSW nurses as well

Sydney's Prince of Wales Hospital would immediately open another 69 beds if 
they were able to recruit their shortfall of 120 nursing staff, claimed the 
Director for Medicine and Oncology, John Dwyer.

Dr Dwyer was giving evidence in support of a wage claim by the NSW Nurses' 
Association (NSWNA) now before the Industrial Relations Commission.

NSW nurses have fought a relentless year-long campaign to bring their claim 
before the Commission.

Despite acknowledging the nursing shortage in NSW, the State Government 
rejected a NSWNA request to initiate an urgent case before the IRC. Instead 
the Nurses Association found its efforts blocked every step of the way.

As part of its campaign the NSWNA held a state-wide public-sector nurses' 
strike on October 18, 2001, and collected more than 110,000 signatures on 
what will be the biggest petition ever presented to the NSW Parliament.

Nurses claim that to reach pay parity with similarly qualified 
professionals they will need an immediate 15 per cent wage rise on top of 
their current negotiated agreement of 16 per cent over four years.

They are also claiming that a "retention bonus" of $10,000 for nurses who 
stay in a job for two years will stem the rate of those leaving the 
profession.

The NSWNA is preparing for a tough fight in the Commission, with the Carr 
Government expected to present a case aimed at diminishing the worth of 
nurses.

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