Historic strike to save services

The Lamp Publication Jan 2014

A strike by Bathurst Hospital nurses reflects community outrage over cuts at the local hospital.

Bathurst Base Hospital nurses have held an historic 24-hour strike followed by work bans to defend local health services.

The strike received widespread support from Bathurst residents who are now focused on the fate of their hospital, as the Western NSW Local Health District (LHD) seeks to cut costs by cutting staff.

A secret ballot of 70 members of the NSWNMA voted unanimously in favour of striking in protest of the shutting of five medical ward beds.

Management of Western NSW LHD ordered the beds to be closed less than a fortnight after promising there would be no changes prior to the completion of an external review of operations.

Management went ahead with the closures, despite being urged to wait for the outcomes of the review at a large public meeting in Bathurst.

NSWNMA Bathurst branch secretary Cathy O’Neil said the strike was not just about lost medical beds but the steady downgrading of services over the past five years.

“Bathurst is one of the fastest-growing regional centres in New South Wales yet we have suffered a 33% reduction in beds since 2008,” Cathy said. “I’ve been at the hospital for 21 years and I’ve never known local nurses to go on strike before, aside from statewide campaigns.”

Nurses and midwives maintained a strike line outside the hospital for the whole 24 hours. Inside the hospital nurses provided night duty staffing levels to handle emergencies and ensure no patient was at risk.

The strike line became a magnet for community participation. “At any given time we had 70 to 80 nurses present on the line,” Cathy said. “Members of the public were always popping in to bring us food and coffee. They were keen to hear nurses’ views about the state of the hospital and to learn what the LHD’s plans meant for them as a community.

“Mostly they came to offer us encouragement for the future. They understood the strike was held, not for the nurses’ benefit, but to preserve adequate services and safe patient care for the community.

“NSWNMA officials from Sydney worked in shifts to ensure there was always someone at the strike line to offer support and advice. That was very much appreciated by all the nurses.”

Other unions, including construction and fire brigade unions, visited to offer help and encouragement, as did Bathurst mayor Gary Rush who promised to take up the nurses’ fight through the local council.

Local businesses pitched in to help with South Bathurst Butchery donating meat for the barbecue and Coates Hire donating outdoor heaters.

Following the strike a meeting of the Bathurst branch of the NSWNMA voted to implement work bans at the hospital.

The bans specified minimum staffing requirements and required patients admitted to the emergency department to be transferred to the wards within one hour.

The bans were part of a plan to handle surge beds in the medical and surgical wards. The surgical ward also lost five beds earlier this year.

Cathy said the bans aimed to ensure the people of Bathurst got the care they deserve.

“The community expects a certain level of care and our members want to make sure they get it. We will not open beds without the right number of staff.”

If more than two patients are awaiting transfer from the emergency department, branch members will advise that the emergency department is on by-pass.

The maternity ward will not accept any non-obstetric patients and theatre will not operate on patients without a staffed post-operative bed available in the facility.

Previous action by Bathurst nurses helped to force the Western NSW LHD to scrap a plan to drastically cut nurse numbers in the intensive care unit.

Following public outrage, management promised to quarantine the ICU from staff cuts and commissioned an external review of all hospital services.