Thousands of Australian nurses strike in NSW, defying government ban
Tens of thousands of nurses across New South Wales (NSW), Australia’s most populous state, walked off the job today in their first statewide strike since 2013. Nurses demand staff increases to address decades-long shortages, an end to a punitive pay cap that condemns them to effective pay cuts and urgent improvements to their dire working conditions, which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Significantly, the nurses continued with their action despite being banned yesterday afternoon by the NSW Industrial Relations Commission (IRC), upholding a request from the state’s Liberal-National coalition government. The mistrust of nurses indicates a growing trend of resistance, not only among nurses and health care personnel, but throughout the working class.
The government has overwhelmed hospitals by allowing COVID to spread. At the same time, he rejected calls for any revival of the chronically underfunded public health system. In fact, the state has fewer staffed intensive care unit (ICU) beds than at the start of the pandemic. Yet the government and pro-business IRC claimed nurses could not strike as it would ‘pose a risk to public health and safety’ by disrupting medical services.
Several thousand nurses rallied in Sydney outside the NSW parliament, while thousands more joined protests in 30 rural and regional centres.
Health workers at the Sydney Rally have told Socialist Equality Party (SEP) activists that COVID has reduced already poor numbers to skeletal levels. A registered nurse said her friend had worked seven 12-hour shifts in a row and “most nurses couldn’t take a break until they got COVID.”
Others said, “We did our best,” but they hadn’t received the support needed to care for COVID patients who needed ventilators. Patients were instead sent to regular non-ICU wards, converted to COVID wards. These rooms were always full. A worker said: ‘One patient would be discharged and two would be admitted. It was constant, and it was like that for months and months.
The clear feeling was that the situation had reached a breaking point and a serious fight had to be fought.
In contrast, the aim of the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association (NSWNMA) was to limit action as much as possible, to suppress political discussions among nurses and direct them to plaintive appeals to the NSW coalition government.
The union only held the strike ballot, having canceled limited union campaigns in the previous two years for fear of an outburst of anger if it failed to do so. Union officials locked themselves with government and health ministry officials as recently as Monday afternoon in behind-the-scenes talks aimed at downplaying the action or calling it off altogether.
In fact, the union made sure that nurses left at different times in different hospitals. This served to divide them into a patchwork of localized actions aimed at preventing any unified mobilization.
Before the shutdown began, the NSWNMA sent a text message to its members, which stated, “Strike Action will continue! Please note that other protest groups may attend rallies today. Don’t commit, let’s focus on the ratios. Alert NSWNMA staff if you have any concerns. Only follow NSWNMA social media for events.
This was clearly a reference to the SEP, which denounced the union’s collaboration with the government throughout the pandemic and its maneuvers to neutralize even the one-day strike it was forced to hold.
The SEP held a successful online public meeting on Saturday, addressed by a health worker in the United States and a nurse in Sydney. He called on nurses to create rank-and-file committees, aimed at uniting all health workers, as well as teachers and other sections of the working class, in a common fight against the pandemic policies of “let it rip” and for fundamental social rights, including a massive expansion of the public health system.
The NSWNMA text made clear the union’s role, effectively asserting its ‘right’ to police talks between nurses, deciding what they can discuss and with whom, and trying to ban them from being exposed to alternative perspectives. .
The text foreshadowed the line for the Sydney rally and other protests, all limited to just over an hour. The issue of staffing ratios has been presented outside of any broader political or historical context. The problem, which has persisted for years, was described solely due to the inclinations of New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet, despite being installed just six months ago.
Speaking in Sydney, NSWNMA General Secretary Brett Holmes made several vague allusions to the pandemic. In his only specific reference to the policies that resulted in its massive spread, he said Perrottet conducted a “Freedom Day” on December 15, despite the highly infectious variant of Omicron already circulating in the community.
Holmes did not mention that it was part of a national policy, involving all state, territorial and federal governments, including those led by the Labor Party. He also failed to account for the role of the union. At no time did he oppose the “living with the virus” program. In January, the union backed changes to close contact rules, forcing potentially infected nurses to stay on the job due to a staff shortage.
Holmes and his union colleagues have said nothing about the conditions of other health workers, who face the same fate as nurses. They also failed to mention the fact that hospital systems are in a nearly identical meltdown in every state and territory. To the extent that other states were cited, it was to falsely claim that conditions for nurses were better there, given the existence of staffing ratios, even if they are not respected.
Everything was limited to Perrottet’s question. Holmes alternated between denouncing the Premier of New South Wales and pathetically begging him to “come to the table”. If the Prime Minister wanted to help nurses, by imposing and funding ratios, but faced opposition from the Treasury, Holmes advised him to say such measures would “save money”.
The rallies ended with no indication of further action, apart from nonsensical statements that “the fight will continue” and “this is the beginning, not the end”. In reality, the NSWNMA will do everything in their power to prevent further, more limited strikes.
Above all, the union seeks to block the only perspective that can advance the interests of nurses and other health workers. This is for the development of a unified political movement of health care workers, independent of the unions and directed against all official parties, including the Labor Party, which fully supports the reopening campaign and has directly implemented cuts health during his tenure.
Nurses need their own grassroots committees, to link up with other health workers, across NSW, the country and overseas, as well as with other sections of the working class, such as teachers and warehouse workers, who are also on the pandemic front lines. The fight for decent wages and working conditions in these sectors is inseparable from a fight against official policies to fight the pandemic, which are based on the subordination of social needs, including health and life, to private profit. .
Instead of plaintive appeals to big business governments, what nurses and other workers must undertake is the fight for workers’ governments. These would adopt the science-based policies necessary to eliminate the virus, while implementing socialist policies, including placing banks and corporations under public ownership and democratic workers’ control, and funneling trillions of dollars to the health system.