NEW ZEALAND’S NURSES are about to discover whether their store of public good-will is big enough to see them through a strike. Very few New Zealanders with experience of this country’s public health system will speak any way but glowingly of its staff. Nurses in particular draw the public’s praise and respect. In our overburdened and understaffed hospitals they display the weary-but-unflinching professionalism of workers required to operate in an environment of more-or-less permanent crisis.
No one knows better that this country’s frontline health professionals how potentially dangerous this situation can become. New Zealand needs more nurses – lots more nurses. But to keep the staff it already has – let alone attract new recruits – nurses insist they must be paid more. Lots more.
But, how much more? That is the question. In an economy where roughly half the paid workforce have not had a pay-rise for close to two years, will the Nurses’ Organisation’s demand for an immediate, across the board, 11 percent increase strike the average Kiwi as “about right” or “too much”. With an experienced registered nurse’s salary set to rise from $66,755 to $77,386 by December next year under the present offer, will the two-thirds of workers who earn considerably less than that sum (in 2016 the median NZ income was just $48,800) regard the union’s proposed strike action as reasonable – or unreasonable?
The offer on the table also guarantees that an additional 500 nurses will be recruited to the national health-sector workforce. This is clever. The single most important contributing factor to the crisis in the nation’s hospital wards is chronic understaffing. More than anything else it is the personal toll extracted by the excessive workloads caused by understaffing that is fuelling nurses’ anger and impatience with the District Health Boards’ management. It would be interesting to know whether the 9 percent offer on the table would be deemed enough if nurses could be convinced that their workloads were about to be reduced very rapidly to more bearable levels.
The DHB negotiators have also been clever in advancing the figure of a third-of-a-billion dollars as the all-up cost of the settlement on the table. To many New Zealanders this will be regarded as an extraordinarily generous sum – especially when the money on offer has been drawn from their taxes. In rejecting the offer, the Nurses’ organisation runs the risk of being dismissed as either unrealistic or greedy – or both.
The best way to avoid this perception taking hold would be for the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) to present the Nurses’ claim as the first of many. After nearly a decade of both public- and private-sector wage restraint, the unions could argue, the time has come for working people to make up the lost ground. The CTU could emphasise the fact that Nurses are not the only workers in New Zealand who have been expected to work harder and longer for no appreciable improvement in their overall living standards. Nurses are, however, the first occupational group to vote in favour of doing something about it.
If the CTU pledged itself to ensuring that the Nurses fight does not turn into a solitary struggle. If frontline health professionals could be presented as merely the first of many workers ready to embrace the tactics necessary to win substantial improvements in their wages and conditions, then trade unionism in New Zealand could have a new birth of freedom.
If the nurses are left to fight this battle on their own, however, then, sadly, there is a better than even chance that the politics of envy and resentment will prevail over the politics of solidarity.