For nurses and midwives, every new round of collective bargaining for the next enterprise agreement involves another series of tough negotiations and, more often than not, members take some form of industrial action in support of their claims to achieve a fair and reasonable outcome.
This of course, is not possible without the collective strength, determination and commitment of ANMF members working together to achieve significant improvements in wages and conditions including a range of workplace issues such as safe staffing levels and workloads.
With enterprise agreement negotiations commonly occurring every two, three or four years, most nurses and midwives are now familiar with industrial relations processes and are regularly involved in work based industrial campaigns in their various forms.
The long list of gains made by ANMF members through collective action is a reminder that the right to take industrial action is fundamental to our system of collective bargaining and essential to promote and protect our industrial interests.
Nationally, the terms and conditions of employment of the vast majority of nurses and midwives are now determined by this process with all public sector, private acute hospitals and 90% of residential aged care facilities covered by enterprise agreements. Enterprise agreements are also negotiated across other areas of employment including, blood services, flying doctor services, correctional facilities, schools, diagnostic services and general practice, to name a few.
A recent industrial campaign by Victorian public sector nurses and midwives earlier this year has resulted in significant improvements in wages and conditions, building on the success of previous hard fought campaigns in support of better agreement outcomes. While thousands of Victorian nurses and midwives have just completed the process of voting on their new enterprise agreement, many may also reflect on the historic 50 day campaign of strike action that took place back in late 1986.
An online exhibition commemorating the 30 year anniversary of this ground breaking strike is available on the ANMF Victorian Branch website: anmfvic.asn.au/86strike
The exhibition covers the background, the issues, personal accounts, the hardships and sacrifice and the aftermath, including interviews with nurses and footage from the time.
Of course many of the issues leading to the strike in 1986 will be familiar. As we know, never-ending budget pressures and cost cutting means negotiations for improvements in wages and conditions are always challenging, and will always need the strength and determination of ANMF members to support their claims.
For Victorian nurses and midwives, it was the vote to remove the ‘no-strike’ clause from the Union’s Federal rules in 1983 that opened up options for effective industrial action in response to the critical issues at that time.
Top of the list was the growing frustration among members over ongoing staff shortages and impossible workloads, low wages and the lack of career structure which ultimately led to the first five day stoppage in October 1985. This was later described as the precursor to the events leading to the 1986 dispute.
The 1986 strike
Frustration levels continued to increase over staff shortages, workload and wages issues. The problems only became worse as many nurses and midwives resigned their positions. Also in May that year, following the retirement of the Branch Secretary Barbara Carson, Irene Bolger was elected to the leadership position.
Against this background, in June 1986, the Victorian Industrial Relations Commission handed down a decision on the Registered Nurses Award. It was the government’s interpretation of the award and consequent impact on classifications and pay rates that triggered the unprecedented response leading to series of stop work meetings, work bans, and ultimately walkouts and 24 hour picket lines.
Key among many grievances, was that the majority of nurses and midwives, many with 10, 20 and up to 30 years of experience, would be downgraded to the lowest classification level in the career structure. In addition, those who had certificate allowances for additional qualifications relevant to their practice, were going to lose those allowances resulting in a small pay increase at best and even a pay reduction for some
The series of events that followed is well documented in this digital exhibition, highlighting the walkouts at different hospitals across the state and picket lines which became an important focal point for public support and media coverage, as well as ‘home’.
It is clear from the extraordinary stories and accounts provided by the nurses and midwives involved that their strength and determination was tested to the limits. They also responded to the constant barrage of attacks particularly from politicians and certain sections of the media by becoming even more determined.
That determination paid off in the end with nurses and midwives voting, on 19 December, to accept a $30 million dollar package offer providing wage increases, the return of qualifications allowances and a new career structure.
The actions of these nurses serves as a clear reminder persistence and collective spirit can achieve great outcomes, even against the odds.
Federal Industrial Research Officer