In response to legal threats and intimidation, Victorian nurses have ended their campaign of limited industrial action in favour of “negotiation” and “rallies”. They have in effect surrendered their only effective weapons in the campaign for just pay and conditions in favour of a slow and strangling defeat.
The trap of “negotiation”
There is a pervasive myth about negotiation as a process. The myth is that in a negotiation two sides sit down “on the basis of equality and talk through and resolve the differences that produced the conflict between them” (1).
There is a fundamental difference between Nurses and the government that cannot simply be ‘resolved’. The government wants nurses to work for the least pay possible, and safety be damned. They still want some kind of hospital system, but they don’t want to pay for it.
Nurses need decent pay, and nurse-patient ratios that preserve a safe working environment, and patient safety.
The reality is that the content of any negotiated settlement will not reflect the supposed merits of each position, rather it will reflect what power each group can bring to bear (1).
By abandoning bed closures, go slows and selective work bans, nurses are abandoning what power they were able to bring to bear on the government.
Successful Industrial Action
The most successful industrial action is that which most comprehensively disrupts the core business of a given enterprise. In evaluating tactics, nurses have to ask, “what is the core business of a hospital?”
The state government wants there to be some kind of hospital system. Selective work bans, bed closures and go slows place a degree of pressure on the hospital system, but they do not fundamentally disrupt anything.
The disruption of a work ban pales in comparison to the day to day disruptions the hospital system is experiencing as a result of under funding and under staffing. The state government has tolerated, and in fact seems intent to exacerbate these disruptions through this negotiating process. Even if the state government had not been able to utilize the union busting power of Fair Work Australia, I suspect the state government would have been prepared to wear the continued pressure of work bans through the negotiating period.
Clearly the provision of adequate safe and professional hospital services is not in fact the core business of the hospital system.
I would suggest that the core business of the hospital system is actually obtaining funding. In the hospital, this is achieved through the processing of Medicare and private health insurance claims.
The state government wants the semblance of a hospital system (broadly the business sector needs a health care system that ensure workers aren’t unproductive for too long), but it would like other people and other levels of government to pay for it.
If nurses were able to interrupt the processing of payments, pressure would quickly accumulative on the state treasury.
Nurses’ Achilles Heels (2)
Nurses can’t disrupt the process of payments in hospitals. Administrative staff are in a different union. This points to a key weakness of labour organising in hospitals.
Nurses are in a different union to administrative staff, cleaning staff in are yet another union, and doctors and allied health staff are divided into a plethora of different professional associations.
Successful industrial action in the hospital sector requires that all these groups be united . When nurses are under attack, there should be bed closures, a ban on the processing of health insurance claims, and the cessation cleaning in non essential areas. When administrative staff or cleaners are under attack, the remedy should be exactly the same.
There is another fundamental weakness that nurses and other hospital staff have to recognise and deal with. Compassion. The state and hospital administration have long abused the compassion of hospital employees to further their attacks.
Nurses are told they must be dedicated, and think of the safety of the public first! Effective industrial action is condemned for putting lives at risk. But ineffective industrial action puts lives at risk in the long term. Stretched nurse-patient ratios have already put lives at risk, and the state governments proposed changes will simply kill more people.
As nurses are paid less, the profession will be deskilled, and the long term effect will be to create a massively inferior second tier public health system.
The long term goal of the state is to transfer the cost of our health system onto the working class. By running down the public system, more people turn to the private system, and eventually we are left with the barbarity of an American style user pays system.
Failure to take effective industrial action will be far more deadly than a few bed closures.
Responding to attacks
Nurses and the ANF are increasingly cowed by threats of civil and criminal legal action. In the 2011 campaign so far, the ANF has responded to threats with backdowns. The bed closures campaign has been replaced with an ineffective public rally campaign.
The idea of rallying on your lunch break is a farce, nurses could protest on their lunch breaks for a hundred years and cause no disruption to the core business of the hospital system, returning to work after an hour only to witness the continued erosion of patient safety and their working conditions.
The only effective response to attack is escalation. It is the state and administrators who must be forced into back downs. When administrators take names, walk out. When legal action is taken against the central union, localise.
The union bureaucracy is a weakness. The state can threaten to jail or fine the unions leaders, seize or freeze its funds and ultimately de-register it.
There is a distinct difference of interest between the unions leaders and the unions members. The members seek only to win. The leaders, having made a career out of union leadership, value the continuation of the union structure over victory.
The union leadership can be pressured to sell out by threats that rank and file members would otherwise brush off.
The answer is to establish local strike committees. If the state threatens to freeze union funds, control funds locally. If the state threatens to jail or fine key leaders, set-up local organising structures that can be sustained even if the central organisation is under pressure.
It is in local organisation that nurses can build the links that will empower all workers in hospitals. Local strike committees should embrace all workers in a hospital, and should fight, with all measures at the disposal of all staff, any time any group of staff come under attack.
Victoria’s nurses can win, but the current tactics of the ANF are fundamentally weak, bordering on an outright surrender.
In order to win, nurses have to be prepared to embrace effective tactics. This would mean defying threats by the state and hospital administrators, and being prepared to take action that disrupts the core business of hospitals.
If nurses are able to act in conjunction with other hospital staff, they will be many times more effective.
The ANF will sell nurses out before it agrees to tactics that threaten it’s institutional interests, nurses need to recognise this, and an effective response to neutralise this threat would be the establishment of local strike committees.
Community solidarity is also important, but token rallies and the wearing of red t-shirts are no substitute for industrial action. If anything, nurses should seek to mobilise the community in supporting ‘illegal’ industrial action. “Fair Work Australia” be damned, lives and livelihoods are at stake.
Ultimately the real question for Victoria’s nurses is, how much do you really want to win? Once you know the answer to that question, let the appropriate tactics follow.
1. Gene Sharpe, From Dictatorship to Democracy, fourth edition, 2010.
2. Thanks to Kay Bennett for her invaluable input in this section. There is much more I could have included about the core ethics of nursing and it’s relationship to industrial action, I’ll try and get Kay to write something about that some time.
Liz Ross, Dedication Doesn’t Pay the Rent: The 1986 Victorian nurses’ strike.
ANF Vic Campaign Website, Respect Our Work.