Nurses’ union raises pay claim under pressure from rank and file

New South Wales Nurses and Midwives Association members across the state have voted branch-by-branch to reaffirm their commitment to fighting for a pay rise of at least 7 percent, in defiance of union officials.

At a mass meeting on 29 June, union members first rejected the union officials’ proposal to accept the government’s 3 percent pay cap over the next year. An amendment moved from the floor by rank-and-file members, who are also socialists, called for the pay claim to be raised to at least 7 percent to keep up with inflation. Members voted narrowly to accept the amendment, and in retaliation, the union officials organised to re-run the vote on a branch-by-branch basis—a method of voting that favours the officials.

After the mass meeting, the union leaders sent an email to all members arguing that they should accept the current 3 percent pay offer—a significant pay cut in real terms—on the grounds the Industrial Relations Commission is unlikely to overturn the government’s pay cap. The 3 percent pay offer is well below the inflation rate, and below the 4.75 percent claim the union called for at the beginning of the industrial campaign.

Nurses and midwives have once again rejected this argument. As one union member told Red Flag: “A majority of members voted in favour of this amendment because they know that the cost-of-living pressures will continue to rise, and nurses deserve so much better than having their pay packet be slashed in real terms over the next year”.

The cost-of-living crisis featured heavily in rank-and file arguments to maintain a higher pay claim. A new report modelled by public sector unions shows that nurses, paramedics and teachers in New South Wales face real wage cuts of more than $7,200 a year if the pay cap stays in place. Workers are facing price hikes across the board, with energy prices increasing by 141 percent this year, and interest rate rises lifting average mortgage repayments by $351 per month. Combined with the enormous stress health workers are under due to the pandemic and the long-term under resourcing of hospitals, it is no wonder nurses and midwives have an appetite to strike for a proper pay rise.

Contrary to the hopes of the union officials, the margin of support for amending the pay claim to 7 percent was impressive in the branch-by-branch re-vote. At the Royal Prince Alfred hospital branch, 73 percent of members voted in favour, 75 percent voted in favour at the Prince of Wales hospital, 71 percent at Sutherland and 64 percent in Shellharbour. Where active rank-and-file unionists campaigned among their workmates, the vote was highest.

After three separate days of state-wide strike action so far in this campaign, the push to increase the pay claim is much more than words and sentiment. But to win the 7 percent demand, more serious strike action will be needed.

Nurses and midwives know the government isn’t going to concede to a 7 percent pay rise and improved conditions without a fight and without support from other public sector workers. In a positive sign, in an email to members after the re-vote, the union officials called on branches to prepare for further state-wide action. As a delegate from the Prince of Wales hospital, who also led the push to increase the pay claim, argued: “What we need now is sustained strike action to win this. Our strikes earlier in the year pushed the government to marginally increase their wages cap—we have to keep that up until they remove the wages cap and give us the pay rise we deserve”.

Nurses and midwives have voted for this pay claim at a time when public sector workers across industries are taking industrial action. New South Wales public servants and railway workers have all taken separate strike action. Public and some private school teachers have taken joint strike action for the first time ever. All of these workers are facing state government pay caps which are in reality pay cuts. The nurses and midwives call for a 7 percent pay rise should encourage activists in these unions to raise their claims and escalate strike action.

“We know the government is not going to give us this pay rise without a sustained fightback and so we will need strikes across the health system. But we also need strikes across the public sector—nurses are not the only ones being screwed over by this government”, another union member argued.  

Joint strike action across the public sector, encompassing nurses, teachers, public sector workers and rail workers would be a significant escalation that would raise the temperature on the government to scrap the cap.

As the largest union in the state, the nurses and midwives can set an important precedent. In the words of one rank-and-file nurse:

“The state government has no interest whatsoever in paying nurses and midwives a decent wage and are determined to make public sector workers everywhere pay for the crisis. We absolutely need the trade union movement to not compromise on the question of pay, and to raise the stakes. Nurses, midwives, teachers, train drivers and everyone else need to organise longer, more militant strikes that disrupt the state government’s business as usual.

“Most of all, we need to organise joint strikes across different industries. Ultimately, we need to lay the basis for a general strike in the public sector that makes the state government too scared to cut another cent of workers’ pay or undermine our conditions any further.”

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