30,000 New Zealand nurses take strike action

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30,000 NEW Zealand nurses went on strike across the country last Thursday over pay and conditions, the first national nurses strike for 30 years.

The New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) said last Wednesday: ‘The democratic, online voting process run by Electionz.com has resulted in the majority of members voting to reject the latest proposed DHB Nursing and Midwifery Multi-Employer Collective Agreement offer.

‘Voter turnout was very high and the result was closer than last time. ‘Industrial Services Manager Cee Payne confirmed that industrial action will go ahead Thursday 12th July with a nationwide 24-hour strike starting at 0700 and finishing 0700 Friday 13th July. ‘There are potentially over 30,000 NZNO members involved. Many staff covered by the DHB MECA have agreed to provide life preserving services over the duration of the strike.’

Payne said: ‘Life preserving services and contingency plans are coming to completion with the twenty district health boards. We are confident that these will be in place as patient safety and public safety is paramount.’ The union statement added: ‘DHBs have requested a reconvening of facilitation. NZNO had an obligation to respond without knowing the outcome of the ballot.’

Payne continued: ‘In response we have stated that the unavailability of additional funding to support an improved offer has led NZNO to the conclusion that facilitation is not the appropriate forum to address the current difficulties in the DHB/NZNO MECA at this time. ‘The issues faced and reported by our members have arisen from a decade of severe underfunding of our public hospitals which have failed to keep pace with growing community need, the ageing population and workforce, and increased costs.’

The strike action is about more than better pay deals. It is also about resourcing in an underfunded health sector, as one North Island nurse explained in a widely shared social media post.

She wrote: ‘We want a ratio of one nurse to four patients, instead of 1-6, or 1-8, or 1-14.

‘We want this so that we can provide the care that is needed to reduce rehospitalisation, to eliminate mistakes, to ensure that people aren’t lying in soiled beds or being discharged too early.’

Dr Rachael Mason tweeted last Thursday: ‘This morning nurses go on strike, please know they do this for us.

‘Patients are at risk through low staffing and inadequate resourcing far too often.

‘Graduate nurses get very low salaries, often needing other part-time work to make ends meet.’ After nine years of a ‘centre-right’ government, nurses and teachers expected more from a Labour-led ‘centre-left’ government. It points to a low-wage economy in which well-regarded and hard-working professionals finally ask themselves: ‘If not now, when? Is this really as good as it gets?’

Acting Prime Minister, Winston Peters called the offer the largest pay increase for nurses in 14 years and he is unwilling to budge. The offer includes three pay rises of 3 per cent across 18 months, a cash injection of $38 million to hire about 500 more nurses, a lump sum payment of $2,000 and a commitment to pay equity by December 2019.

Finance Minister, Grant Robertson says there is no more money but negotiations will continue.

This line stands in contrast to the government’s recent announcements that the economy is doing better than predicted.

Just the week before, the Crown accounts showed that the tax take is up by $300m and the accounts are in even better shape than forecast when Robertson delivered the Budget in May. At the time, Robertson described the good result as a side effect of his careful fiscal responsibility, saying that ‘the latest set of accounts show the coalition government is sticking to our commitment to run the books responsibly by running sustainable surpluses and keeping expenses under control’.

Of course those expenses include the public health sector and the wages of those who toil within it.

Commentators have pointed out, nurses, and their friends in the teaching profession, may also look at news of a proposed $2 billion spend-up in defence and wonder what it says about priorities.

Other groups to strike since the Labour-led government took over in October 2017, the first Labour government in a decade, include cinema workers, fast-food workers, and bus drivers. Primary school teachers are also ready to strike for half a day on 15th August, their first strike action in more than 24 years.

Primary school teachers and principals, members of NZEI Te Riu Roa (NZEI), overwhelmingly voted on 3rd July in favour of a three-hour work stoppage on 15th August, and are now discussing whether to extend the strike to a full-day. They expressed their anger at the inadequate pay offers of Ministry of Education.

They had asked for more time to teach and lead, more support for children with additional learning needs and a pay jolt to stem the teacher shortage. Instead, most teachers (about 86%) are being offered a pay rise ranging from about 2.2-2.6% a year for three years, and just 12 minutes extra a week of time to work individually with children or plan and assess learning.

The offer was far from the 16% over two years that members had identified as being necessary to address recruitment and retention issues that had grown during the term of the previous national government.

The request to fund a Special Education Needs Coordinator (SENCO) in every school to assist children with additional learning needs was also ignored. The lead negotiator for teachers, Liam Rutherford, warned that the current crisis would become a disaster if the government did not get serious about the issues facing the profession.

He said: ‘At many of the meetings, members felt that a stoppage from 1.30-4.30pm did not send a strong enough message, and there were many calls for the strike to be for a full day.’

In response, he explained, NZEI’s National Executive is now calling for member feedback on whether to extend the strike, which may result in an electronic ballot being held at the beginning of next term.

The lead negotiator for principals, Louise Green, also stressed that teachers and principals were very conscious of the inconvenience for students and families. She stressed: ‘But we’re taking action now to avert the very real threat of larger class sizes within just a few years.’

Green was adamant that the ongoing support of school communities was essential to the success of the 3rd August action. She insisted: ‘We want to be able to give every student a quality education that meets their needs, and our parent communities understand that.

‘Primary teachers have not taken industrial action in New Zealand since 1994, and the fact that we are taking such a step shows the grave concerns we have for the future of quality public education.

‘The government needs to take some courageous decisions now for the sake of children and their learning.’

The education union will be meeting with the Ministry in further negotiations over the coming weeks to try and reach a settlement addressing the issues that principals and teachers have raised. NZEI said: ‘Research into public attitudes shows strong support for ending the historic underpayment of teacher aides and early childhood educators, who are working towards pay equity settlements.

‘NZEI Te Riu Roa commissioned The Navigators to undertake the research.

‘91% of the 1015 New Zealanders surveyed agreed that students with additional learning needs require more support, and there was strong agreement for more support (90%) and increased pay (85%) for teacher aides. ‘In ECE, there was also a high level of agreement (81%) that ECE teachers need more support and a pay rise (77%). Three in five New Zealanders believe ECE teachers are underpaid because they are female.’

NZEI President Lynda Stuart said it was hugely encouraging to see that the wider public understood and appreciated the value of the work these educators are doing. ‘The days of employers saving money by underpaying female-dominated workforces are thankfully coming to an end. The government has made it clear that it wants to end this injustice, and this research shows that New Zealanders agree,’ she said.