By Chris Latham
In a ballot of nurses employed in Western Australia's public health system, two-thirds voted to reject the state Labor government's offer of a non-union agreement. The clear rejection of the government's attempt to sideline the Australian Nurses Federation occurred despite ongoing public attacks on the ANF.
To help build support for the non-union offer, which was initiated on December 13, state health minister Jim McGinty wrote a letter to all WA nurses. The letter quoted sections of Australian Industrial Relations Commission deputy president Brendan McCarthy's December 8 decision to terminate the ANF's bargaining period, which accused ANF state secretary Mark Olson of not genuinely trying to reach an agreement and of being more interested in conducting a political and media campaign.
UnionsWA secretary-elect Dave Robinson initially appeared to support the government's move. He told the December 14 West Australian: "We don't approve of any of this in general but there appears to be a special case here. We expect the government to negotiate with unions in the future, no ifs and no buts". Robinson then told the December 14 Workplace Express, UnionsWA's online journal, that the West Australian's report was incorrect and UnionsWA was totally opposed to any attempt to bypass the ANF.
According to the Workplace Express, Robinson had "initially believed (incorrectly) that the government was merely conducting a straw-poll ballot to gauge nurses' reaction to its offer — a move he would also normally oppose but for the levels of frustration on all sides of the protracted dispute".
Grahame Armstrong, in a December 19 Sunday Times article entitled "Nurse demands a sick joke", described Olsen as a "headline-hunting, ambitious unionist" who was seeking to use state elections to "squeeze more money" out of taxpayers.
The ANF opposed the government's offer because it failed to address nurses' demands for reduced workloads. According to the ANF, the final offer included a number of setbacks both on previous government offers and existing conditions. These include roster changes no longer requiring the approval of the majority of nurses, loss of accumulated days off for clinic nurses (in lieu of overtime) and changes to the definition of shift worker, which would have reduced some nurses' leave by up to a week.
After the defeat of the non-union agreement, the government will take the dispute into arbitration. However, according to a January 12 enterprise bargaining update to members, the ANF is continuing to push for the government to negotiate further.
There is likely to be ongoing pressure on the Labor government to deliver a better deal for nurses. The ANF has been threatening to campaign against the ALP outside polling booths in the state election.
From Green Left Weekly #611.
Wednesday, January 19, 2005
By Chris Latham