Historic rally for pay justice

Nurses and midwives from the Sydney Adventist Hospital held a public protest for the first time in the hospital’s 110-year history to push for a better agreement

An “insulting” pay offer led Sydney Adventist Hospital nurses and midwives to mount a strong community campaign, including the first protest rally in the hospital’s long history.

The NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association recruited more than 100 new members during the campaign, during which staff wore t-shirts and badges with the slogan “Value our San nurses and midwives”.

Known colloquially as “The San” the hospital opened in 1903 as a sanitarium. Today it is one of the state’s biggest private hospitals with more than 50,000 inpatients and 175,000 outpatients each year.

Following the campaign Adventist Health Care Limited (AHCL) made an improved offer, including a 6% pay rise over two years. AHCL had previously offered a 1.75% increase in the first year and 2% the next. This would have left San nurses way behind other major private hospitals.

“Members were surprised and angry [at the initial offer]. We told management we felt insulted by their very low pay offer,” clinical nurse specialist Julia Taylor, the NSWNMA branch secretary at the San, said. She said members responded by campaigning at work and recruiting new members.

“We formed a great bargaining team including members from the main campus at Wahroonga, the San day surgery at Hornsby and Dalcross Adventist Hospital at Killara and we all pulled together,” Julia said. “We held lots of meetings to keep members informed about the progress of negotiations.

“Management started calling its own meetings to put their case to the wards, because I think they were concerned we were getting our message across very well and wanted to counteract us.

“It took management about seven pay offers to get us up to the final pay offer of 3% in year one and 3% in year two, plus the 0.25% superannuation increase.

“It was a difficult bargaining process which should have taken three months but actually took six months to finalise.

“Our union organiser was inspirational and kept us working together through endless meetings towards a good result.”

As members built their numbers and influence in the workplace, AHCL retaliated by putting salary packaging and allowances on the bargaining table. Salary packaging arrangements for mortgages, health funds, shopping cards etc were hospital policy but, unlike other big not-for-profit hospitals, were not written into the collective agreement.

AHCL sought to cut 100% salary sacrificing by half – in effect withholding half the tax benefit from salary packaging – and to abolish the laundry allowance.

“That really fired everybody up,” Julia said. “We realised we had to protect 100% salary sacrificing by getting it written into the agreement. It is worth quite a bit of money to us and we knew other facilities like the Mater had it in their bargaining agreement.”

The branch also decided to push for parental leave to be paid in full up front instead of the hospital’s archaic practice of withholding half the payment until staff returned to work.

AHCL’s move to cut allowances and fringe benefits prompted the NSWNMA branch to launch a campaign to win support from the local community. It featured t-shirts and badges, a petition that garnered almost 800 signatures, and a series of reports and letters in local papers.

More than 200 nurses and supporters attended a two-hour protest rally opposite the hospital, which drew enthusiastic support from passing motorists.

“Nurses who attended said the rally was uplifting – it demonstrated our capacity to stand up together and not be taken for granted,” Julia said.

As branch secretary Julia was particularly pleased by a big jump in union membership as the campaign wore on. This built on a substantial membership increase during the previous bargaining round two years earlier.

“Nurses realised we had to stand up together and the only way you could do that was to become a member of the union and have a say in what was going on.

“We allowed non-members to come to our meetings to hear what we were doing, so they weren’t only getting management’s point of view. That encouraged them to join up.

“As the campaign went on we got many more active members from all our work areas across the hospital. These activists kept everyone in their area informed about campaign developments.”

Julia said the final offer still left San pay rates behind comparable hospitals, such as St Vincent’s and the Mater, “but we are creeping up there.”

Employees were voting on the AHCL offer as The Lamp went to press.

The offer included:

  • A 6% pay rise over two years with no cuts to allowances.
  • Parental leave entitlement upfront when taking leave.
  • 100% salary sacrifice protection.
  • Paid compulsory competencies and training.
  • ADON pay rate increase to NUM 3 rate.
  • More flexible personal/carers leave.