Bob Whyburn celebrates 40 years with Australia’s ‘best union’

Union solicitor Bob Whyburn celebrates 40 years service to the NSWNA this month.

Bob Whyburn says the NSWNA is one of the best unions in Australia – and he’s worked with quite a few.  ‘It’s very democratic, it looks after its members.’

This month is his 40th anniversary working with the NSWNA. Since 1969, Bob has provided legal counsel to the NSWNA and its members – first as a solicitor with Turner Jones (now Turner Freeman), then for nearly 20 years in his own firm and now as a Consultant to Maurice Blackburn Lawyers.

‘The NSWNA has been in existence for 78 years, which means I have been the legal adviser for more than half the life of the Association,’ he said.

His work includes representing the NSWNA in industrial cases before the Industrial Relations Commission and in matters such as the Garling Special Commission of Inquiry into Public Hospitals where he provided legal advice to members who wished to give evidence.

‘Having legal protection and industrial advice is one of most important benefits of being a member of the Union. You’d be mad not to have this protection,’ he said.

‘The best part of my job is meeting nurses at their hospital or other place of work and sitting down with them to discuss issues affecting them.’

There’s also his role providing general and personal legal advice and services to NSWNA members.

‘A lesser-known benefit of being a member of the NSWNA is having access to a free legal consultation on any matter. It doesn’t have to be an industrial matter, it can be a personal or family matter. Most people just need some advice but if you need further legal services, we offer members a discounted rate,’ said Bob.

Bob’s career specialising in labour law seems a long way from his childhood growing up in Maitland NSW, surrounded by family working in the local mining, farming and steel industries. But he explains that unions have been an important part of his life from a young age. ‘We were working class. I grew up aware of unions, knowing they were important,’ he said.

‘When I left high school I had decided I wanted to do law but I knocked back a university scholarship because I was playing in a rock-n-roll band, and I didn’t want to leave Newcastle. I spent a year as an articled clerk at a law firm in Newcastle that acted for trade unions.

‘In those days articled clerks were viewed as cheap labour. Bright young people were taken on and worked like dogs for not much pay and without getting much valuable experience in law. But I was fortunate, I did get a lot of valuable experience and I learned a lot about the practice of law – more than if I had been going to uni full-time.

‘I had a full case load during the day, then I went to university at nights and on the weekends. It was a hard road,’ he said.

When Bob started working with the Association in 1969 it was a very different organisation from today. ‘The attitude of nurses towards themselves and their profession was very different. Nurses didn’t question their role. They didn’t speak out. They did what they were told by the matrons and doctors. Thus it was very much a professional Association, not a union.

‘The challenge was getting people thinking differently about themselves and the nursing profession. Former General Secretary Pat Staunton was very successful in starting the process of getting people active and thinking about enhancing the profession,’ said Bob.

‘Now nurses join the NSWNA because they want to be part of an industrial organisation which is also a professional association. The changed structure of the organisation reflects a change in nurses’ perception of themselves.’

The bringing together of the NSWNA and the ANF was a highlight of his time working with the Association. ‘This was achieved in 1987 when agreement was reached as a result of the NSWNA intervening in a Federal Award application filed by the ANF. It was not a full amalgamation, we referred to it as a “harmonisation”. There was a Deed signed that enabled the NSWNA to effectively operate independently and continue to exclusively cover nurses in NSW, and also operate as the NSW Branch of the ANF. Shortly after, the QLD Nurses Union followed suit so that for the first time there was a truly national nursing union,’ said Bob.

‘It provided a national focus for nurses, enabled comparision of pay and conditions and a stronger career path for nurses.’

A more recent highlight was supporting and advising members during the Garling Special Commission of Inquiry into the public health system in 2008. ‘Commissioner Garling took evidence in public at about 32 different hospitals and facilities and I attended all but two of the hearings. I was on hand to support and advise nurses wanting to give evidence. Where necessary, I organised private hearings if nurses were concerned about the repercussions of giving evidence. Many nurses were concerned about workplace issues but they were afraid to speak out. They told me that had I not been there they would not have spoken up.

‘The NSWNA made two written submissions to the Inquiry and we estimate that about 70% of the issues we raised for consideration were adopted. That’s pretty good.

‘It was very draining. I was on the road for four months but it was a very important inquiry,’ said Bob.

’We’ve achieved a lot in the 40 years that the Association and I have been working together but there is a lot more to do. I’m looking forward to the next 40 years,’ said Bob.