Pay rises at Forster Private

"It was a massive decision to take strike action and it wasn't taken lightly." - Jo Stratton, NSWNMA branch president
“It was a massive decision to take strike action and it wasn’t taken lightly.” – Jo Stratton, NSWNMA branch president

Nurses engaged in a successful campaign of theatre closures and public engagement to win fairer wages and conditions.

About 90 nurses at Forster Private Hospital on the mid-north coast have won pay increases totaling 9.75% after a strong campaign of industrial and community action, including a strike that closed the hospital’s two operating theatres.

NSWNMA General Secretary Brett Holmes said the nurses had not had a pay rise since October 2010 and had been asking for a new agreement for 14 months, without getting a fair pay offer.

He said the hospital’s owner, Pulse Health, had allowed nurse salaries to fall about 15% behind rates paid at nearby Manning Base Public, and about 13% behind Mayo Private Hospital in Taree.

“How can you credibly say you want to be the hospital of choice for staff when you allow that situation to develop and continue?” Brett asked. “Pulse’s refusal to commit to a reasonable plan to start fixing the low pay rates left the nurses with no choice but to take legal industrial action.”

Pulse Health owns five private hospitals in New South Wales and Queensland. The president of the NSWNMA branch at Forster Private, Jo Stratton, said the branch initially sought increases of around 15% to achieve parity with the public health system.

Pulse’s counter offer was a 2.75% increase in the first year and an increase of between 1.5% and 5% in the second year, at the company’s discretion. Members rejected this offer but did reduce their claim to 10% over two years. They later rejected Pulse management’s counter offer of 6.25%, finally settling for a compromise of 9.75%, to be paid in three stages over 27 months.

“The feeling among the staff is pretty good now,” Jo said. “Everyone is feeling quite happy with what we’ve achieved.”

The branch called three, eight-hour stoppages – two on the general ward and the third also covering theatres.

“It was a massive decision to take strike action and it wasn’t taken lightly. There was a lot of discussion at the branch meetings,” Jo said. “We are not a huge hospital and we look after patients who we know personally.

“But we got to the point where we felt backed into a corner. There was no other way left for us to show the company how serious we were and how upset we were with their offers.”

The branch began its campaign with bans on overtime and filling out forms to enable the billing of patients. Nurses wore badges stating “we are seeking a pay rise from Pulse Health” and handed out leaflets to visitors and patients explaining the campaign. They also held a rally and leafleted the town centre.

Brett Holmes said the company wrote to every nurse “…inviting them to approach the company as individuals to do an individual agreement.” That attempt to divide the workforce failed to gain traction.

He said Pulse management later tried to head off industrial action by initiating a ballot to put the company’s pay offer to all nurses.

“However when Pulse saw the determination of nurses, and realised they were united with their branch, they called off the ballot and negotiated an acceptable agreement.”

Forster Private nurses overwhelmingly approved the final 9.75% deal in a ballot conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission.