Our Victorian nursing colleagues faced fines and legal action for pursuing fair pay but their determination has paid off, seeing them win one of the toughest industrial campaigns in the WorkChoices era.
The Victorian Government has finally agreed to an agreement that delivers public sector nurses annual wage increases of up to 6.1% and measures to improve workloads.
The result ends one of the toughest industrial disputes ever waged by the ANF.
ANF (Victorian Branch) members embarked on industrial action when negotiations stalled in their pay case. Members refused to accept the Victorian Government’s initial pay offer of 3.25% increase each year over five years, which would have left them the worst paid nurses in Australia.
At a stop-work meeting on 16 October, 3,000 ANF members voted to implement work bans that included shutting one in four public hospital beds and cancelling G of operating theatre sessions.
The Victorian Government was forced under the new IR laws to penalise any nurses taking part in the industrial action and took the ANF to the Federal Court.
Thousands of public sector nurses found their pay packets had been docked. The nurses had been penalised by their managers for attending the stop-work meeting on 16 October and for imposing work bans – some had lost up to half their pay.
Harsh and draconian? Absolutely, but this is all part of life under WorkChoices! With Victorian public sector nurses in the federal IR system, the Victorian State Government had no choice but to take legal action against the ANF and penalise nurses taking industrial action – no matter how justified and reasonable. WorkChoices imposes large fines on employers for not penalising unauthorised industrial action.
Public sector nurses in Victoria do not enjoy the same protection as their NSW colleagues, who were made NSW Crown employees by Premier Morris Iemma and are thus momentarily protected from the scourge of WorkChoices.
Under the federal industrial relations system, Victorian public sector nurses are subject to WorkChoices. Under these IR laws, there is no path to reasonable industrial action. Industrial action is practically illegal.
NSWNA General Secretary Brett Holmes said the case highlights how vulnerable workers are under WorkChoices. ‘These IR laws take away a path to reasonable industrial action. There is no legal avenue for workers to pursue what they are entitled to,’ he said.
‘The Howard government’s federal IR laws do not allow nurses to stand together and take action to get ONE agreement to cover all public sector nurses in Victoria,’ said Brett.
‘Victorian nurses, like most NSW nurses in the private sector, no longer have a state Industrial Commission or laws that allow them to legally take action to get the pay rises they deserve,’ he said.
‘Our Victorian colleagues have been forced to break the law because they simply took industrial action to get what they are entitled to.’
Victorian nurses’ fair pay victory
State Secretary ANF (Victorian Branch), Lisa Fitzpatrick told a meeting of more than 5,000 members on 25 October that their determination had finally paid off. She said that their courage in sticking together, despite having their pay docked, was pivotal in reaching a fantastic outcome.
‘I take my hat off to you. Without your action, I wouldn’t come here today with an agreement that I believe I can recommend that you should accept,’ she said.
The Agreement delivers nurses a pay increase of between 3.6 and 6.1% per year for four years, depending on their grading.
Lisa said that on average nurses will get a 4.75% per year wage increase over the life of the deal, lifting them from the lowest-paid to ‘around the third-top’ of nurses in the country.
NSWNA Assistant General Secretary, Judith Kiejda, said Victorian nurses deserve the pay rise. ‘Victorian public sector nurses are currently the worst paid in Australia. They deserve to be paid the same as their interstate colleagues.’
The government also agreed to an additional 500 nurses, who would be deployed in areas where workload ratios were too low, such as emergency departments and maternity wards, and existing nurse ratios will be maintained or improved.
Members voted unanimously to accept the proposed Agreement.
Hockey backflips and supports ANF
The case took an ironic twist when the face of WorkChoices, Federal Minister for Industrial Relations, Joe Hockey, came out in defence of the ANF and its members. The Brumby government should ‘put aside the cheap politics and pay the nurses what they deserve’, he said.
This is the same man who opined in the same week that ‘the role of unions in Australia is essentially over’.
John Howard also accused the Victorian Government of hypocrisy for using WorkChoicesto dock the pay of nurses involved in work bans. He did not mention that his IR laws impose large fines on employers for not penalising unauthorised industrial action.
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