A show of strength

About 3000 NSWNMA members rallied at Sydney Olympic Park, and another 2000 at 17 regional webcast venues, to send a message to the O’Farrell Government: improve and extend ratios.

Some 5000 Nurses and midwives from 180 New South Wales’ hospitals attended rallies held during a statewide strike on July 24, voting to escalate their campaign to improve and extend ratios.

Three thousand members massed at Sydney Olympic Park, where the meeting was streamed live to another 2000 members at regional venues.

A resolution, passed unanimously at the Special General Meeting, set out the next stages of the campaign:

“Public health system nurses and midwives will escalate their community and workplace campaign to convince the NSW government that the nursing hours/ratios system should be extended to more clinical areas, and improved to guarantee the same minimum nursing levels in all hospitals in NSW.

“Our campaign will continue with activities including: continued pressure on our MPs; building local community, professional and public sector advocacy coalitions; bed closures and service restrictions where needed to ensure safe patient care; and standing together to uphold the correct implementation and maintenance of ratios in wards/units where they currently exist.

“The NSW government can prove its support for patients by giving NSWNMA an acceptable offer to improve and extend the award-based nursing hours/ratios system.”

A pivotal moment

NSWNMA General Secretary Brett Holmes told the meeting that the O’Farrell Government’s arrogance and intransigence had given nurses and midwives no option but to strike.

“After 11 fruitless meetings with your employer, the Ministry of Health, and their point blank refusal to extend ratios and negotiate for safe patient care, it’s come to this. Nurses and midwives are all committed to patient care. It’s our profession. It’s our vocation. It’s the reason we chose this career in the first place,” he said.

“We never willingly walk away from our patients. But this state government has left us nowhere else to turn.”

Brett said the statewide strike was the culmination of months of action and was a pivotal moment, but members would have to brace themselves for a long campaign and government resistance.

“This campaign, like no other, is going to test our resolve and resilience. Our actions for patient safety to date have not gone unnoticed by this government,” he said. “Just check your pay slips in a few weeks when your pay increase comes through.

“They know how deeply nurses and midwives care about safe staffing levels, so they are trying to deflate our campaign by throwing some money at you and hoping you’ll go back to work and stop your campaigning.

“A lousy two-and-a-half per cent at that. They must think we’re cheap to buy off. And just to add injury to insult, they then deducted a quarter of a per cent to force you to pay for the employer’s superannuation contribution.”

Brett acknowledged the need to accept the pay rise so nurses and midwives can pay their bills, but emphasised that the campaign wasn’t about money.

“We will accept the small pay rise because all pay rises are necessary to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table and to retain and attract the nurses and midwives of the future. But nurses have always cared for patients more than money. Our battle is to win the safest care we possibly can for our patients,” he said.

Backed by other unions and patients

Mark Lennon, secretary of Unions NSW, told the audience that other unions were proud of nurses and midwives and stood firm with them.

“Congratulations on the fantastic campaign over the past few months,” he said. “All of us in the union movement have admired it. I’m here to say one thing on behalf of the NSW union movement: we support you.”

He said the way the O’Farrell Government had treated nurses was consistent with the way they had treated all public sector workers.

“This government doesn’t believe in a decent industrial relations system. It doesn’t know how to behave as a decent employer. It doesn’t want to negotiate, it wants to dictate to its employees.

“Your fight is not just a fight for nurses, it is a fight for all working people in this state,” he said.

Other union leaders who attended the rally to show their support included Steve Turner, acting general secretary, Public Service Association; Denis Ravlich, executive officer, Australian Salaried Medical Officers; Peter Remfrey, secretary, and Scott Webber, president, Police Association; Alex Classens, Rail Tram and Bus Union; Tim Ayers secretary, AMWU; Rod Brown, Teachers’ Federation and Steve Robinson, ETU.

Gwen Green, a member of the community, travelled all the way from the North Coast to add her support to the meeting.

“The professionalism of nurses in Grafton is superb. We need safety not just for patients but for nursing staff as well. Keep up the good work,” she said.

Vox Pops

“I don’t want to see the profession stretched like a rubber band.”

“I’m here mainly to support nurses in regional areas. Inadequate nurse-patient ratios really affect them because it’s harder to find the backup when things go wrong.

Births can go terribly wrong. It can be touch and go as to whether a baby suffers irreversible damage and sometimes you have only a very small window of time to get babies as stable as possible. In these circumstances it’s vital to have adequate staff levels.

It was the right decision to go on strike today. I don’t want to see the profession stretched like a rubber band and break apart. I’ve been a nurse for nearly 20 years and it’s given me so much joy. I want to make sure the new generation of nurses coming through has the same standards.”
Bonnie Fonti RN, neonatal intensive care unit, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital

“This is my first strike.”

“The main issue for me is equality between workplaces. Country hospitals deserve the same nurse-to-patient ratios as we’ve won in big city hospitals. Workloads at John Hunter were pretty heavy going before we won the improved ratios. Now we have more time for patient care.

This is my first strike and it was a difficult decision for me to go on strike today. I felt I needed to support colleagues who don’t have the same staffing levels as me, and their patients as well.

Our patients understand why we are on strike today. The family of one of our patients put a message of support for us in the local Newcastle paper.”

Simon Lau RN, cardiology department, John Hunter Hospital

“The community is 100% behind our campaign.”

“Today is all about patient safety. With the current 1-to-4 ratio we spend all our time running around trying to get our basic work done. A 1-to-3 ratio would give us the time we need to properly and safely care for patients – time to notice deterioration in patients, for example.

The community is 100% behind our campaign. We speak to them every day in the hospital and they can see first hand the difficult task nurses face.

The government is aware of the problem but they are trying to ignore it. That’s why we are here today. The government forced us into this strike and we won’t stop our campaign until the government wakes up and realises they need to do something.”

Robert Houston RN, emergency department, Blacktown Hospital

“The government’s attitude is very arrogant.”

“We are here today to get a message out to the public that nurses are under pressure and we need these ratios desperately – mainly for their safety. We are showing the public that we are serious about this issue.

People are being discharged from hospital earlier in their recovery, which means community nurses have to pick up that extra workload. Mrs Skinner talks about 4000 extra nurses but not one of those has been seen in community nursing.

As community nurses we go into people’s homes and all the time we get feedback that the public have seen our television advertisements and support us.

The government’s attitude is very arrogant. It won’t budge just because of today’s strike. This is the start of a long campaign and I’m sure all the community nurses at St George will support the campaign the whole way.”

Charles Lancaster RN, St George Hospital Community Nursing

“We have to keep going until we get safety for our patients.”

“Staff levels are the main issue for me. In the sub-acute and acute waiting room areas you could be looking after 10 or more patients.

Staffing in the paediatric section is atrocious. It’s scary to work there especially in the mornings and at night. You could be the only nurse on to look after 15 kids and deal with their families.

Patients often want to give us feedback about their condition but don’t feel they can interrupt us because they see how busy we are.

For the government it seems it’s all about money not the welfare of the patients. We have to keep the campaign going until we get safety for our patients.”

Sophie Jamieson RN, emergency department, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital

“The general feeling is outrage.”

“The main issue is to get more nurses on the floor to look after patients. We don’t have time to provide proper care. We come home from work thinking about what we have missed and what we should have done but couldn’t, because of the heavy workload.

Patients and the community generally are aware of the problem. They are not happy with having to wait to get pain relief or go to the toilet because there’s not enough staff. They appreciate we are trying to do our best but our best is not always good enough because we simply don’t have the time.

I wholeheartedly support the strike today. The general feeling among nurses I work with is outrage that we have to fight like this for patient safety. I don’t think the government is taking this seriously at all and we have to be prepared for a long campaign. I think we will have a big fight on our hands.”

Deborah Wells RN, medical ward, Maitland Hospital

“I wanted to show my support for all nurses.”

“I work in a transplant unit and our patients are quite acute, so we are lucky that we do get better staff-to-patient ratios than other wards. However if we have sick calls they don’t necessarily get filled, and night shift has three nurses to 21 patients, all in single rooms. It doesn’t make you feel confident to do your job well when you don’t have enough support.

Other wards could have two nurses to 10 or 12 patients and nurses could be working with junior staff or agency staff that don’t know the ward and the patients. So it’s quite dangerous.

This is my first time on strike and I felt a little bit guilty leaving the morning staff short because my shift is not covered. But I wanted to show my support for all nurses and also to be able to go back and tell people I work with what is going on with our campaign.

I don’t feel I can trust the government. They want to take back some of our pay rise to pay for our superannuation – giving with one hand and taking away with the other.

If the government doesn’t see reason I would be prepared to take further action; otherwise we won’t see any improvements. We have to let the government know we’re not just going to sit here and take it.”

Monica Northrop RN, Royal North Shore Hospital

“We have to take action until things change.”

“Ratios in the ED are not safe for nurses and the patients we are caring for, and we’ve come here today to try to change that. If it doesn’t improve we will continue to have adverse outcomes for patients. And staff will keep on getting burnt out and suffer stress because they are forced to look after more patients than is safe.

All the nurses I work with are in support of improved ratios because it affects everyone in ED. We will have to keep taking action until things change.

As nurses at the front line, working with patients under these conditions, we are advocates for the patients while the government often comes at it from a different angle with different priorities. Hopefully we can find some middle ground, come to an agreement with the government and get safer care for patients.”

Anna McNarn RN, emergency department, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital