Thousands rallied across the country last weekend to show their support for health workers in their campaign for better pay and conditions. There were gatherings of several hundred in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, and rallies in cities all across the country. From Greymouth to Gisborne people came out to stand in solidarity with nurses and other health workers.
The determination, focus and strength of the rallies was an inspiration. Health workers have been facing in their daily working life the effects of years of underfunding in the system, and it is taking a toll on their physical and mental health. Just this week RNZ’s Checkpoint reported that nurses in Christchurch are assaulted at least twice a week. Reports this year of the rot and potentially dangerous mould in Middlemore Hospital are a symbol for the decay and neglect nurses are fighting against. They have huge public support.
The rallies, organised for International Nurses Day, were organised by health workers and their supporters and grew out of the networks forming around the Facebook page “New Zealand, please hear our voice”, a space where health workers have been sharing stories of their anger, frustration and upset at the state of nursing and public health in New Zealand. One of the Dunedin organisers, nurse Anne Daniells, gave the Otago Daily Times the reason for the rallies: “”We want to do our job properly and we can’t do that, given the resources and the pay and conditions we are working under.”
Other workers joining these protests had the chance to show nurses just how much support they have. Some rallies were addressed by speakers from other trade unions, such as the PPTA, and many trade unionists were in the crowd. Nurses had a chance to share their stories. “Now is the time for change”, a statement from the Facebook page’s founders read, and that message resonated. Popular chants at the rallies touched on issues other workers face. In Wellington the crowd chanted for equal pay, safer staffing levels, and that “safe staffing saves lives”.
The “New Zealand, Please Hear our Voice” page is a very positive development. It has drawn new layers of workers into activism and has shown how much nursing stories resonate. A petition initiated by the page has gathered over 28 000 signatures, and the page itself is liked by more than 45 780 people. This means that each of the stories shared about overwork, stress, and understaffing connects with tens of thousands across the country. The rallies – and the wider #hearourvoices campaign – keeps up the pressure and momentum as the health workers campaign for a decent pay deal with the District Health Boards continues. Nurses have had enough. As Anne Daniells told the ODT, she would be “very surprised” if votes amongst union members did not lead to strike action later this year. The Facebook page and the protests rally health workers and their supporters together, and make good connections for later actions.
However there are tensions, too. Former Mayor Peter Chin was one of the featured speakers at the Dunedin rally, and used the opportunity to argue against strike action. Some – a very small minority – comments on the Facebook page have criticised the unions, and the NZNO in particular, in the same breath as the DHBs. Although there were many trade unionists on the rallies on Saturday – and healthcare is a proudly unionised industry – there were few union banners or visible signs of solidarity, with some people feeling that the marches were not an event where unions had a presence.
But unity is strength. As NZNO President Grant Brookes put it, the “NZNO members, delegates and staff who joined the #HearOurVoices marches on International Nurses Day… represent the future of our organisation.” And ‘Florence Smith’, one of the Facebook administrators, was clear: “NO union bashing, this is about unity and togetherness we need and I mean this we need everyone fighting for us, nurses and health professionals in New Zealand. Yes, people are frustrated but put that frustration into action.”
There are bound to be more actions in the coming months. #HearOurVoices has been heard by workers across the country, and nurses are beginning to inspire others. These rallies were a fantastic step in the wider campaign.