Victorian nurses reject pay deal

22 May 2024
ANMF Victoria member
Victorian nurses at an Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation meeting PHOTO: The Age

On 17 May, Victorian public sector nurses shut 800 beds, taking our first industrial action in more than a decade. Before the action, members of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) had rejected the government’s offer of a 3 percent annual pay rise, due to concerns about the rising cost of living and underpayment of women workers.

As patients were discharged throughout the day, the number of closed beds grew. By that afternoon, word came down from the union that the government had given us a reasonable pay offer and our industrial action was called off. Beds were reopened.

But when details of the offer were revealed at a meeting of 3,000 union members the following Monday, it didn’t receive the warm welcome the union was expecting. Instead, nurses voted to reject the proposed deal, and pledged to fight for more.

The new offer kept to the government’s wages policy of 3 percent annually, with a $6,100 cash payment to sign on. There were small improvements to various allowances for more difficult, skilled or unsocial work, such as night shift. And a few popular but easy wins, like reintroducing permanent night shift for those who volunteer, and a minimum rest period after coming off night duty. But overall, the offer was not a significant improvement on what had previously been rejected.

Nor was the new offer the sole focus of the meeting, with the union also revealing that it had launched a gender parity case with the Fair Work Commission. The case argues that nurses and midwives are underpaid because we are mostly women, which is all true (a graduate nurse in Victoria earns a base rate of $67,500, well under the average for university graduates of $75,000). Following the recent success of a similar case in the aged care sector, the ANMF expect pay for graduate nurses to increase by between 5.5 and 13 percent if the case is successful. Of course, Fair Work would determine how much this increase would be, the timing of it, and whether it flows on to more experienced nurses and midwives.

While a pay rise to address an historic injustice is certainly needed, the possibility of it should not be used to sell nurses an agreement that fails to even come close to keeping pace with inflation. To maintain the existing standard of living for nurses, nurses need an agreement that offers pay rises commensurate with inflation. Separate pay rises intended to compensate for the historic gender pay gap must be in addition to this if they are to actually remediate the social inequality they are supposed to address.

And while promises about gender parity pay rises are based more on aspirations rather than any firm agreement, the proposed offer is so bad that even with these promised increases, nurse pay will still in many cases fail to keep pace with inflation. I did the numbers based on my own income as a graduate nurse, comparing the proposed changes with my current pay.

Our last enterprise agreement gave a 3 percent increase to nurses in December 2022, when inflation for the year had run at 7.8 percent. There was no pay increase last year. So right now, I’m $125 a week behind where I would be if wages had kept pace with inflation.

The agreement on its own would leave me $100 per week poorer by 2027 than if wages kept pace with inflation. If the Fair Work case is included, the best I could hope for would be to be $95 per week better off, but could easily still be $60 per week worse off, depending on how much they award. This neither adequately addresses the historic and continuing gender pay gap, not adequately compensates nurses struggling with cost-of-living pressures.

As the discussion wore on at Monday’s meeting, nurses became more and more animated that the agreement had to be sent back to the drawing board. The biggest criticisms were directed at the government’s 3 percent wage policy, with many comments imploring the union to challenge it head on. When it finally came to a vote, the offer was shut down by a show of hands, with masses of members cheering and whistling as the result was declared “not carried”.

Where to from here? We have been told not to expect a better offer because the government is in debt. But there is plenty of money that could be used to boost the wages of healthcare workers. In March, The Australian reported that the combined wealth of the 250 richest people in the country had reached $591 billion—an increase of 86 percent on the 2019 figure of $318 billion. These people and the companies they own should be taxed to pay for the healthcare system that keeps millions of people alive and healthy.

And though Victoria’s Labor government is crying poor in its recent budget, the Age reported this week that there is $76 billion squirreled away for spending closer to the election. For comparison, budget papers show the total Victorian government spending on health of around $29 billion for the coming 12 months. So the money for the wage rise we deserve is there if we keep pushing for it. And a properly funded health system should be a priority for the government, and the last thing to be scrimped on.

By standing up for ourselves, nurses are standing up for everyone in the health system—whether they be workers or patients—as well as the rest of the public sector. As the largest single group of staff in Victoria’s public health system, what nurses accept could shape the outcome for every other group.

Ambulance Victoria paramedics have also rejected a state government offer, with 86 percent of union members voting to reject a deal late last year. Key sticking points were a lack of movement on wages and allowances, and staff working hundreds of hours of forced overtime. The result is that like nurses, ambos are burnt out, exhausted, and there is high turnover of staff. Now there is the prospect that nurses and ambos will be fighting for a better deal together.

Workers in the health system have spent far too long making sacrifices to keep public health going, while governments skimp on what’s required. We need to keep fighting for a better deal.

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