Joining hands to save services

Union members are finding new ways to connect with their local communities in response to state government cuts to the public sector.

The inaugural meeting of the upper Hunter Community Unions Alliance has agreed to mount a campaign in support of Muswellbrook Hospital nurses as its top priority.   The Alliance decided to back the Muswellbrook branch of the NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association in its push to get one more nurse in the emergency department.   The Upper Hunter Alliance – slogan: building our community with improved services – is one of 35 similar local groups to spring up around New South Wales so far.   Their aim is to bring union members and the broader community into a loose alliance to campaign on issues of mutual concern.   The state government’s deep cuts to public services were the focus of the Upper Hunter Alliance’s first meeting in Muswellbrook. Workers from unions covering public employees made up the bulk of the meeting.   Alliance chairman Graeme McNeill, an engineering officer at Liddell power station, said all groups represented were given an opportunity to explain the issues important to them.   “We’ve got a lot of issues running up here -the ambulance service has lost a shift, TAFE teaching is being cut back, there are problems at Muswellbrook jail – but the consensus was that the nurses’ plight should be our highest priority,” Graeme said.

The Upper Hunter Alliance called on local National Party member and state government minister, George Souris, to publicly declare his support for an additional nurse at Muswellbrook Hospital ED.

“The Alliance is of the opinion that Mr Souris has not pursued this most serious community concern with any intensity or vigour and has effectively turned his back on the nurses and local community,” a resolution read.

Graeme McNeill said local people were upset because MPs such as Mr Souris were aligning themselves with the interests of their political party, to the detriment of their constituents such as patients at Muswellbrook Hospital.

“Hospital management are telling Mr Souris that Muswellbrook nurses have adequate numbers, but we are coming in from a community perspective to point out that services are inadequate and unsafe because the current level of staffing is inadequate.”

Muswellbrook Hospital nurse Natasha Hart said she got involved with the Community Unions Alliance because it provided a way for employee groups to connect with the community as a whole.

“It is a great way for the local Nurses’ Association branch to build on what is already a wide community awareness of the nurses’ campaign for safer staffing,” she said.   “The Alliance meetings attract representatives from areas like the power stations, ambos, teachers from all levels of the education system, prison officers as well as us nurses. We will be inviting representatives from the Country Women’s Association and Chamber of Commerce too.”

Natasha said nurses were encouraged by the community’s strong support for the Muswellbrook Hospital campaign.

“We have an emergency department and a separate special care unit staffed by one nurse for long periods of time. We need two nurses to cover these areas during all shifts, for our patients’ safety and our own.”

Adam Kerslake, deputy assistant secretary of Unions NSW says the Community Unions Alliance concept showed its potential at Grafton earlier this year, when the O’Farrell Government downsized the local jail without any community consultation.

“The government broke its promise not to downsize the jail and took 108 jobs out of the community, including nursing jobs – a real blow to the people of Grafton,” Adam said.

“Job losses impact local businesses so organising support from the local chamber of commerce was a logical step.

“Clarence Valley Community Unions (CVCU) was able to get broad support from business groups and the local council for a protest rally that attracted 3500 people. If the unions had done that on their own they might have got 200 people to a protest. The CVCU also organised a picket line for six days.

“Jeremy Challacombe, the head of the Grafton Chamber of Commerce is also a former vice president of the National Party and we had a lot of National Party support for what we were doing.

“The Nationals were facing a bit of an identity crisis, saying they represented regional areas while supporting a government that’s taking jobs from regional areas.

“The Community Unions Alliance is about campaigning for good jobs and thriving communities and it adds a lot of value to campaigns that unions are running at a local level.

“Unions like the NSW Nurses are an incredibly effective union but a lot of people feel like it’s not enough, we’re still losing out, still losing our entitlements such as workers’ compensation. So this is about building alliances to find more effective solutions.”

Adam said the Clarence Valley Community Unions campaign had forced a NSW Upper House inquiry into the closure of Grafton jail.

“A government decision made without any consultation or consideration of the impact on a community, will finally get the scrutiny it deserves thanks to the work of the Clarence Valley Community Unions.”