“When community health is under attack, what do we do?”

“Stand up, fight back!”

The chant rang out at a lively rally by allied health workers and supporters at Merri Health, a community health centre in Melbourne’s inner north, on 29 June. 

Merri Health is one of 29 such centres in Victoria. They provide a vast range of health services, including physiotherapy, occupational therapy and mental health programs. For two long years, members of the Victorian Allied Health Professionals Association (VAHPA) have been fighting for a new enterprise agreement.

It’s been a tough fight, with the Victorian Hospitals’ Industrial Association resisting every inch of the way. As an occupational therapist employed by Merri Health told the rally: “The enterprise bargaining process makes us a bargain for our employers”.

VAHPA secretary Craig McGregor likewise condemned enterprise bargaining as an “unjust and unfair system”. Industrial action was necessary to advance the workers’ claims, he said, yet it took a year just to win the right to take protected action. Since then, seven of the 29 centres have taken action of some kind, including wearing campaign T-shirts at work, not attending team meetings, not performing duties outside position descriptions and not recording or reporting statistics.

Merri Health’s response was to dock 25 percent of pay of staff who took part in this protected action. However, this only stiffened the resolve of the workers and led to three more members signing up. 

Community health workers are seeking wage parity with their counterparts in hospitals, job security and a better career structure. But they also have serious concerns about the future of the sector. As Craig McGregor pointed out, there was not one dollar for allied health in this year’s state budget, following years of funding neglect by both Coalition and Labor governments. 

Victorian Socialists candidates Steve Jolly and Sue Bull took up this theme, pointing to the danger of “privatisation by stealth”. Jolly noted that community health centres serve the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in the community, and are vital to the lives of working class people.

The union action has won agreement on a number of key items. But workers are also seeking compensation for not getting a pay rise for two years, and they want to stop a management push to employ contractors on inferior wages and conditions.

VAHPA officials stressed the need for solidarity and continuing action. Lead organiser Linda Jenkin told the rally, “We need to keep our boots on their necks”.