NSW nurses fighting privatisation of health care

Hundreds of nurses and midwives from Manly and Mona Vale hospitals rallied on 2 May in defence of hard-won conditions. The action was the latest in a five-year campaign against the closure of the two hospitals located in Sydney’s Northern Beaches area. Nurses working at the hospitals are being forcibly redeployed to a new private hospital that will be run by private health operator Healthscope.

The NSW government has stumped up $1 billion in construction costs for the Northern Beaches hospital. It will pay Healthscope an additional $1.14 billion over the length of its 20-year contract to run the hospital.

The government will “rent” 255 beds from Healthscope for public patients, although not all treatments will be available to public patients. One nurse explained the situation to Red Flag: “The services we provide at Manly and Mona Vale, which are all free, will not be free any more. There will be a charge attached because [Healthscope] are a for-profit organisation and they are answerable to their shareholders”.

While the fight to keep the new hospital in public hands has been conceded by the union, the focus now is the retention of transferring workers’ conditions. Nurses are also demanding a fair redeployment scheme that will mean nurses are matched according to experience within the Northern Sydney Local Health District.

A vote to strike at both hospitals – carried on 27 March – forced the Berejiklian government, as well as Healthscope representatives, to agree to a joint meeting with the Nurses and Midwives’ Federation. The joint meeting was a first in this campaign.

At the rally, it was announced that Healthscope had made a number of concessions, including maintaining staffing ratios, guaranteeing workers two years on the state award and promising local redeployment. In response, the union called off strike action. 

Though the public health sector has high union density and strong award conditions, the situation in the private sector is different. In a resolute address to the crowd, union assistant secretary Judith Kiejda implored nurses and midwives to remain active in the campaign, calling to “hold [Healthscope’s] feet to the fire”, and to lead the fight for wages and conditions in the private sector. She finished by stating, “You’ve actually got the power to make them give you what you need”. Her speech was met with calls to strike from the crowd.

Nurses and midwives at Manly and Mona Vale hospitals have shown a glimpse of the kind of fightback needed to stop the sweeping privatisation of health care.