A mass meeting of Australian Nursing Federation members in Perth has voted to demand a 10 percent pay increase, a Consumer Price Index top-up and a one-off payment of $4,500. They are also demanding “enforceable nurse/midwife-to-patient ratios” as part of an escalating campaign of industrial action.
The Western Australian Labor government is offering an insulting 3 percent pay “rise” (a real wage cut) and a one-off $3,000 payment.
Two thousand five hundred nurses filled the Convention Centre for a stop-work meeting, blowing whistles and holding signs reading “Ratios—it’s a matter of life and death” and “1:4 or out the door”.
Union officials’ initial motion called for a pay increase of 5 percent plus a CPI top-up, but this was increased by the meeting after speeches from the floor by socialists.
Rachel Goldsborough, a Socialist Alternative member, spoke first, arguing for a pay rise of at least 8 percent. Pointing to the campaign by NSW nurses, who are fighting for a 7 percent pay increase after union officials there also increased the claim under pressure from the rank and file, Goldsborough asked her fellow union members, to rapturous applause: “If we’re not reaching for the stars, what’s the point of trying?”
Chris Jenkins from the Socialist Alliance followed Goldsborough, saying nurses should demand 10 percent. This was adopted by acclamation. Conditions in WA hospitals are atrocious, affecting workers and patients alike. Two nurses attending the meeting told the West Australian that staff at their hospital regularly skip meals to look after patients.
Severity assessment code 1 clinical incidents—events that have or could have caused serious harm or death as a result of the care provided (or not provided)—at Perth Children’s Hospital have doubled since 2019.
One union member told Red Flag that working in a hospital has never felt more unsafe. “Being short multiple nurses per shift has become the new norm. I can count the number of times I’ve worked on a fully staffed ward this year on one hand. We need enforced nurse-to-patient ratios like Victoria. It’s time for us to take a stand and say enough is enough”, she said.
Meanwhile, Mark McGowan’s Labor government continues to impose austerity on public sector workers. Until last December, wage increases were capped at between 1 and 1.5 percent for most public sector workers. This has increased to 3 percent and a one-off $3,000 payment, far short of Perth’s CPI rise, the highest of all capital cities at 7.4 percent.
To add insult to injury, last month Treasury revealed that the state surplus was a record $6 billion, up hundreds of millions of dollars from the May budget. The state’s iron ore riches have increased the personal net wealth of mining magnates Gina Rinehart and Andrew Forrest to more than $30 billion, according to the Australian Financial Review.
Posts on the ABC Facebook page were overwhelmingly supportive of the bold claim, with calls for McGowan to “cough up”, and much support for the nurses.
Unfortunately, other public sector unions have settled cheaply. The State School Teachers’ Union, for example, agreed to a below-inflation deal earlier this year, while the United Workers Union, which has some coverage in health care, has recommended that members take the government’s current offer.
By contrast, amid cheering and fanfare, the nurses’ mass meeting authorised escalating industrial action, starting with bans over the next four weeks, followed by day-long stoppages, bed closures and “indefinite strike action”.
Goldsborough told Red Flag that the government has been treating nurses disgracefully, and “it’s time to fight”. “Workers don’t get anything by asking nicely”, she said. “We need to stand together and force the government’s hand. Industrial action is the only thing they’ll listen to.”
The nurses’ ambitious claim lays out a path for other workers to follow, and the industrial action authorised will certainly be needed for victory.
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