US nurses mobilise for rights

International attention is focused on the US state of Wisconsin where public employees, including nurses, are battling an extreme anti-union administration.

The mid-western US state of Wisconsin witnessed a massive show of global support in March, for the right of public employees, including nurses, to negotiate terms of employment via their unions.

The bargaining rights of Wisconsin public employees were ripped away under a “budget repair law” passed by an extreme-right Republican legislature and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. The law affects thousands of Wisconsin nurses, including those who work in public health, jails and universities. It was a first step towards inferior working conditions, staff cuts and privatisation of public assets.

Since the law passed last year, a union-led campaign has collected more than one million signatures to recall Governor Walker and hold a new election, which could happen in June.

At the request of the global union federation Public Services International (PSI), the NSWNA and other foreign unions sent representatives to the March mobilisation in Wisconsin. PSI is enlisting worldwide support for public employees in the US, who are under attack from several state governments.

Thunderous applause greeted NSW Nurses’ Association organiser Michael Whaites when he took the stage at a rally of Wisconsin nurses, union representatives and members of the community in the city of Milwaukee.

“When they heard that a union from New South Wales Australia had come to support them the response was phenomenal,” Michael told The Lamp. “More of a standing roar than a standing ovation.”

Michael told the Milwaukee rally there were close parallels between what Governor Walker had done in Wisconsin and what the government of Premier Barry O’Farrell aims to do in NSW.

“In Wisconsin, the governor took away public service workers’ rights to collectively bargain. In NSW Barry O’Farrell has significantly weakened our industrial rights and is attacking award provisions that allow us to have a say in staffing issues such as ratios.”

Michael said anti-union politicians justified the attacks on US workers’ conditions as essential to economic recovery.

“Australia has not suffered through the ‘global financial crisis’ as the US and Europe have – in fact parts of our economy are booming. Yet we in Australia are also under attack, which shows these attacks are not an economic response, but an ideological one.

“We know we share with the people of Wisconsin a fight for union rights, a fight for decent services, a fight for our communities.

“That’s why we share one more very important thing – international solidarity and support; because your fight here in Wisconsin is our fight in New South Wales.

“I’m here today to deliver a message of support to you, our fellow unionists, and a message to those whose ideologies place profit above the community – we are watching, we are fighting and we will prevail.”

Michael also attended rallies in Madison, capital of Wisconsin, where around 2000 people braved below-zero temperatures to attend a candlelight vigil to mourn the anniversary of the passing of anti-union legislation. The following day an estimated 62,000 people turned out to mark the event. The crowd was buoyant in the knowledge that they have forced a Recall Walker election.

Candice Owley, a Registered Nurse and president of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, said the issue had “reinvigorated our members to stand up and fight back.

“I remember when nurses worked three different shifts in one week,” she recalled, adding that because of collective bargaining, “nurses have been able to stand up and say what their working conditions should be like” and organise to improve them.