We will continue to fight for more – July 2008

As The Lamp goes to print members have voted to accept the Iemma Government’s offer of a 7.95% pay increase over two years for public health system nurses and midwives.

Finally, the Government came up with a proposal that is a step forward to improve working conditions in our public hospitals – a base wage increase that matches the Sydney inflation rate and a chance to argue our case for better night duty rates and more money for experienced nurses before an independent umpire.

The concession by the Government to allow the Industrial Relations Commission to arbitrate on night duty penalty rates and on extra pay for experienced nurses is an acknowledgement that we have a case. It is now down to the independent umpire to assess the merits of our argument and deliver a fair result. It is a real opportunity to make further advances.

The Agreement is only for two years. This will give us more scope later to improve conditions as the Federal Government’s increased funding for health – announced in the budget – begins to flow through to the states.

The NSWNA Council recommendation to accept the final offer was based on this analysis – that it is an advance in conditions with a further opportunity to improve the Agreement within two years.

Very late in the day – after council had made its recommendation and after the majority of branches had voted – the Government offered to extend the Agreement with a 3.9% increase for a third year. The Government made this conditional on agreeing to a further offset that would have made our claim for experienced nurses impossible to run in the IRC. Your Council Executive rejected this on the basis of what nurses have been telling us in state-wide meetings – no more offsets.

There are other important gains in the Agreement. The Government has responded to our argument to improve the depth of experience in the system by agreeing to fund another 120 CNE positions. This is in addition to the extra 80 they announced in their election platform.

The finalisation of the CNS/CNE/NE review, which looked at the role and work value in these classifications (also for the equivalent midwife positions), delivers significant pay increases and a better career structure.

The consequences of not taking the Government’s offer

While the NSWNA believes the Government’s final offer was satisfactory there were other reasons for accepting it.

The alternative was unpalatable: the offer of 7.95% and the right to arbitrate over night duty rates and for extra pay for experienced nurses would have come off the table if we rejected it. At that point we would have been forced to go to the Industrial Relations Commission to get a likely 2.5% per year increase. Anything beyond 2.5% would require a special wage case.

There was a precedent set earlier this year for how the IRC would react to a rejection of a Government pay offer. NSW Fire fighters were offered a 4% pay increase with substantial offsets. They rejected this offer and took industrial action. The IRC ordered an end to this action, granted a 2.5% pay increase and insisted the fire fighters prepare a special wages case based on work value. The dispute started in February and the case is due to start in August. The fire fighters now have a substantial list of counter claims from the employer. The last time the NSWNA took this route the case took three years before we achieved a result.

On top of this we had the threat by the Government not to pay back pay if negotiations were not wound up by the expiry of the agreement on 30 June.

We believe it was the correct decision to accept the offer. The 7.95% keeps pace with inflation forecasts for the next two years and is significantly more than the 2.5% annual limit demanded by Treasury. The night duty penalty rates and extra pay for experienced nurses are still in play with the IRC and the opportunity still exists to improve pay and conditions in 24 months.

Where to from here

Our claim was based on nurses’ experiences and knowledgement of the problems and challenges at the coalface of health and their ideas to solve the health crisis. The problems are complex and will not be solved overnight. Realistically, solutions will require action from both the State and Federal Governments.

The Fair Conditions, Fair pay, Nurses Stay campaign is not over. Negotiations on the next agreement will begin in 20 months. We will build on the momentum we have achieved and continue to make our case at both the State and Federal tiers of Government.