Strikes are Back: Victory to the Health Workers!

After a long slumber, the working class is awakening. In the first half of this year there was a smattering of industrial action, more than for years. The stirrings are hesitant. The actions, typically, limited to just hours or days. What more could we expect when it’s been decades since the unions used their now atrophied muscles? But this is the start of a revival. Young workers are tasting their power for the first time. They don’t carry the baggage of our defeats long ago. Today’s workers are learning valuable lessons from their first tentative actions that they will put to use tomorrow in bolder, more resolute strikes; strikes that win.

There has not been a strike at the Inland Revenue for 22 years, but on Monday PSA members there and at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment struck from 1pm to 3pm. This was a nation-wide strike involving over 4,000 workers. The biggest concentration was in the capital where about 500 marched. All around the country there were marches and rallies. The demands: across the board pay rises and an end to unfair pay systems that give management control over an individual’s pay. Another 2-hour stoppage is planned for 23 July. The PSA is currently handling a big increase in membership applications.

Nurses, health care assistants and midwives employed by the DHBs have shown the greatest desire to fight and win a meaningful improvement in their quality of life. The pressures on health workers have built up to the extent that workloads are unbearable and staffing levels too low to allow sufficient time off to rest. Nurses complain of burn-out; they go overseas or leave the profession. This predominantly female workforce saw the aged-care workers win pay equity and want their own undervaluation rectified. Did not Labour campaign on funding the health service and pay equity? With the advent of a Labour government, the health workers hopes were raised and they thought “now is the time”.

The health workers’ dispute demonstrates the new mood most clearly. In this instance the rank and file members of the New Zealand Nurses Organisation have had to overcome the conservatism of the union’s hierarchy to pursue their demands. Amazingly, the membership has voted down four offers, the first and latest being recommended to them by their negotiators. The first offer from the DHB’s was voted down at the end of last year. In March a second offer was voted down on the understanding that an industrial action ballot would follow. At the beginning of April health workers demonstrated enthusiastically outside their hospitals; their willingness to fight was apparent, and they duly voted for action later that month. But it was when the members were at this high pitch of militancy that the union negotiators took a misstep by agreeing to the government’s proposal of an independent panel process. This meant postponing industrial action. The result of the independent panel process was an improved offer, but not one that would transform health workers’ lives. This third offer was voted down with a 24-hour strike due to take place on 5 July. Significantly, the new offer still did not give the health workers two consecutive rest days a week or reduce the number of hours they can be required to work on-call.

This offer was repackaged as a fourth offer, the NZNO called off the strike and recommended that the members accept. Part of the recommendation was designed to undermine the members’ belief in the fight where the negotiators state that “it has been indicated there is clearly no more additional funding to provide more than the revised offer we have received.”

Today, the NZNO have announced that members have rejected the fourth offer and repudiated their negotiators’ recommendation. The union said that the turnout was high and the vote closer than previously. There are no details of the voting figures. The closer vote is not surprising given the lack of leadership and the way the dispute has been dragged out.

A 24-hour strike is set to start at 7am on Thursday. With the NZNO having 30,000 members this will be the biggest strike, in terms of the numbers involved, for a very long time. Nurses have not struck for over 30 years. The stakes are high. Teachers are watching the health workers. The government fears an explosion of pay demands.

The most important thing right now is that the health workers receive support on their picket lines on Thursday. The media may turn nasty; the government may dig their heels in. Practical solidarity will be a factor in keeping up the health workers’ spirits up. They made need to strike again.

Health workers look after us, we must look after them!

Victory to the health workers!