Wednesday, February 9, 2005

WA nurses battle heats up

By Chris Latham

Just three weeks before Western Australia goes to the polls, the nine-month-long nurses dispute over a new certified agreement has come to a head. The Australian Nursing Federation (ANF) is considering an offer made by the Coalition opposition.

The offer matches the Labor government's, which includes a pay rise of 14.7% over three years, but goes further with an additional $50 million in improved working conditions.

Both the state government and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI) have condemned the Coalition's offer. The CCI fears that the offer could lead to improved working conditions across the industry. In the February 1 West Australian, CCI policy director Bruce Williams said the Liberal Party should not have been drawn into a bidding war by the ANF to settle a pay claim because it would add to the cost of running the health system. He also predicted that such a deal would flow on to the private sector by forcing it to match these conditions in order to attract nursing staff.

UnionsWA secretary Dave Robinson told Australian Associated Press on January 31: "The decision made by [state Coalition leader] Colin Barnett to intrude into the wage bargaining process between public sector employees and their employer ... is highly inappropriate."

Media reports have suggested that the ANF is endorsing a vote for the Coalition. ANF state secretary Mark Olson clarified in the January 28 EBA News: "The ANF has never and will never tell members how to vote in a state election. We have said the Coalition $212 million package will encourage nurses to vote for them." What is not clear, however, is how nurses who are running as independent candidates, primarily in marginal seats under the slogan "Nurses for health", will be directing their preferences.

Whilst the Coalition is offering better conditions to nurses than the government, there is no escaping the Coalition's anti-worker agenda. The election of a Coalition government would impact adversely on future bargaining outcomes for all WA workers.

The Labor government's approach to negotiations with the ANF has been one of open hostility, leading to the current stalemate.

In October 2004, the government insisted that any ballot on its offer ordered by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) be voted on by all nurses rather than only ANF members and that the ANF be prevented from commenting on the offer.

In November, the government applied to have the ANF's bargaining period suspended, which was granted by the AIRC in December in order to force the ANF into arbitration. Following the ANF's refusal to accept the offer, the government cut the union out of negotiations by conducting a ballot of all nurses offering a non-union agreement, in which 70% of nurses rejected the government's offer.

The ANF has not been the only union targeted by the government. In 2003, during both the State School Teachers Union (SSTU) and Civil Service Association (CSA) enterprise bargaining campaigns it adopted hostile negotiating tactics, including threats to suspend bargaining periods. Labor MPs crossed a CSA picket of parliament and the government ran a costly two-page advertisement in the West Australian to publicise its offer to teachers while in a conciliation process.

In November 2004 the ANF disaffiliated from UnionsWA, which, according to the November 12 West Australian, was due to its "failure to support the ANF in its battles against the state government over pay and other issues ... and its failure to take the fight up to the government on key issues such as workers' compensation".

UnionsWA and other public sector unions have challenged the Coalition to similarly improve the working conditions of all workers in the public sector. They have also raised concerns over the effect of the agreement on the ALP's electoral prospects in the February 26 poll. UnionsWA secretary Dave Robinson told the Australian on January 28: "Apart from being a Faustian pact, I think [the agreement] is potentially damaging to Labor."

However, the ALP government's hostile attitude to public servants reflects its commitment to a neoliberal agenda, exercising fiscal "responsibility" by limiting spending on social services, pay and conditions and instead heavily subsidising business development. These policies have only served to further alienate the ALP from working people.

Without a strong and united labour movement that is willing to fight for the interests of workers over and above the interests of any political party, it should come as no surprise that some unions will seek to negotiate with and support whichever party they think will best answer their immediate demands.

In the lead-up to the state election, the union movement and the wider community need to apply maximum political pressure on the ALP government to support the nurses' claim. It is this sort of solidarity and action that can force the government to make a just settlement with the nurses.

At the same time it would be a political mistake for nurses to support the election of a Coalition government. Workers will already have a major battle on their hands to defeat the new wave of anti-worker legislation that PM John Howard's Coalition government has flagged. This fight will be made even harder for WA workers — including nurses — if the Coalition wins the state election on February 26.

From Green Left Weekly #614.

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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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