GUEST BLOG: Ian Powell – Health Minister behaves badly towards nurses

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Arguably Minister of Health Andrew Little is the MP in the New Zealand Parliament with the greatest experience and knowledge of collective bargaining between employers and unions. For several years he was an effective leader of the Engineering, Printing & Manufacturing Union, the largest union in the private sector. In 2005 he initiated one of the most effective collective bargaining campaigns that I’ve observed called ‘5% in 05’.

One would have thought therefore that he would have understood collective bargaining behaviour well in the highly unionised health system, especially in district health boards (DHBs). One would have also thought that he wouldn’t publicly misrepresent the position of the union representing nurses (NZ Nurses Organisation – NZNO) following the nurses strong rejection of the DHBs’ latest proposal for settlement of their national collective agreement in their recent ballot. How wrong ‘one’ was.

Disingenuous response to nurses ballot rejection

After the ballot outcome became known the Minister alleged in public that the proposed settlement rejected in the ballot was actually proposed by NZNO. Nothing could be further from the truth. The proposal came from the DHBs who are negotiating on behalf of government.

NZNO acknowledged that the proposal was an improvement on the DHBs previous position and agreed to ballot its members. But it wasn’t their proposal and they didn’t endorse it. This is common in the collective bargaining process.

During my time with the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists I negotiated over a hundred collective agreements, both locally and nationally. I’m rather proud of this century, particularly as a keen cricketer for many years I never got close (no difficulty achieving this milestone in golf however). Attempts to drive a wedge, including the use of misrepresentation, between union leaders and members weren’t uncommon. While exposing them became an effective organising tool for me as a union leader, the overall effect was to generate (or strengthen) distrust of the workforce towards their employers making a settlement even more difficult to achieve.

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This bad behaviour would have also been experienced by Andrew Little when he was a union leader. Consequently it was even more disappointing to seeing him practice what in an earlier life he would have abhorred. It has led to the word ‘liar’ being used to describe him in some nursing and union social media. This is unfortunate because it doesn’t resonate with my understanding of him.

But his conduct was at least disingenuous. As Minister this more significant than if the bad behaviour had come from a DHB representative. While DHBs are the formal employers of nurses, in practice the government is the organ-grinder. Government dictates the position of DHBs who can go no further than allowed.

Distrust

There is another lesson to be learnt by government and DHBs from the nurses’ ballot rejection. The 2018 settlement was ratified by nurses with a clear majority. But a sizeable minority voted for rejection and a number of those voting in favour did so unhappily.

This led to a legacy of distrust which has been reinforced by the subsequent failure to address pay equity (a feature of the 2018 settlement) in a separate process from these negotiations and the Government’s foolish attempt to introduce a pay freeze for more experienced nurses.

It is self-obvious to state that trust takes a long time to earn but only a short time to lose for an even longer time.

Lack of certainty

The proposed settlement has been called ambiguous by some. I can understand how this view emerged but it isn’t quite right. It would be better to characterise parts of the proposal as lacking certainty. Some provisions included words to the effect of agreeing to reach agreement by a specified time.

In an environment of trust this might work but not when distrust is the prevalent sentiment. The Government has brought this unfortunate situation upon itself. Further, the Health Minister’s erroneous accusation against NZNO has only served to increase distrust among nurses.

Achieving a settlement

If this dispute between the Government and nurses is not to further escalate the focus needs to sharpen on what is required to achieve a settlement. There are important factors that the Government needs to accept and act on.

First, DHBs have severe nursing shortages which is affecting patients’ access to and the quality of treatment. Second, nurses are paying for this situation with their health. Turning a blind eye makes a mockery of the commitment to wellbeing. Third, DHBs are losing experienced nurses to Australia and elsewhere. Fourth, it is becoming increasingly difficult for DHBs to recruit enough younger nurses to work in increasingly unsafe workplaces.

Then the Government needs to agree to negotiate increased nursing salaries to a level that will both retain existing experienced nurses and recruit additional nurses to the number required to ensure workplaces are safe for both patients and nurses.

Andrew Little has the knowledge and skillset to play a constructive role in settling this escalating industrial dispute. It is time (overdue in fact) that he demonstrated this.

Ian Powell was Executive Director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, the professional union representing senior doctors and dentists in New Zealand, for over 30 years, until December 2019. He is now a health systems, labour market, and political commentator living in the small river estuary community of Otaihanga (the place by the tide). First published at Otaihanga Second Opinion.

24 COMMENTS

  1. Completely agree.
    As leader of the EPMU he advocated for the workers now as Minister of Health he’s advocating for the employer and to top it off inferring the NZNO are liars.
    Very poor behaviour for a Minister.

    • Why is it a lie when the NZNO recommended to it’s nurses to reject the offer but send it to a ballot anyway. This was the feedback recieved from the nurses from within the organization I work in. What people forget is the outcome of negotiations don’t just impact nurses, social workers occupational therapist’ support workers will have increases in salaries as they fall under the NZNO contract agreement.

  2. Completely agree.
    As leader of the EPMU he advocated for the workers now as Minister of Health he’s advocating for the employer and to top it off inferring the NZNO are liars.
    Very poor behaviour for a Minister.

  3. Kind of proves leopards can change their spots!
    How do the DHBs as a group negotiate with the nurses, do they have a central negotiating team?
    With the shortage of staff are we not paying the price for taking nurse training out of the hospitals and making students pay for their own training. Like the collapse of apprenticeships and funded teacher training you can survive for a generation but then the true cost appears as the lack of skilled people. We were warned this would happen.

    • You ask many good questions and I think when you look at a timelime of when
      “taking nurse training out of the hospitals and making students pay for their own training, the collapse of apprenticeships and funded teacher training ” the National party are at the forefront of this.
      Remember Paula Bennett pulling the ladder up from underneath her in terms of supporting beneficiaries to better themselves with the same free training incentives Bennett had?

      Labour are attempting to rewrite one of the many wrongs…
      https://www.labour.org.nz/education.

      • Bennet has shown her true colors over and over as another neo liberalist apologist, and now,… in true traditional neo liberal fashion, has left her former occupation as a NATIONAL PARTY ‘apologist’ leech, after apologizing ( did she ever? ) for her pony tail pulling leading south pacific tax haven millionaire ‘welch off the FOREX trading Kiwi dollar’ leader , and joined a gaming show.

        Is that the caliber of the govt that ‘led us’ for 9 years?

        Really?

        What say you, Hillary Silly Barry? Another stupid human interest story about Mrs Jones cat up a tree recued by the Fire Dept while the rest of the country goes to blazes sleeping on park benches or whole family’s sleeping in vans while the Blairite Adern blathers on about their insignificant contributions towards social housing?

        Yeah. Right. Slow . Clap.

        …”You had best square your ass away and start shitting me Tiffany cuff links or I will definitely FUCK you up”…

        – Gunnery Sergeant Hartman.

        Aka the voting public of NEW ZEALAND.

    • Yes our politicians knew for a long time we have an ageing population particularly our Pakeha whanau yet governments failed to train and upskill Maori and PI who have a younger demographic population. Instead governments brought in cheap labour. And many businesses are calling for more cheap foreign labour. Milking cows, picking fruit, hospitality workers should be filled by Nzers and good pay and work conditions are important as is secure work. If we continue to rely on too much foreigners in too many sectors we will need to build thousands more homes and heavily invest in infrastructure. Covid continues to expose our heavy reliance on foreign workers and the greed and selfishness that is now more notable in our country. The vaccine rollout is improving thank goodness cause I’m getting sick and tired of listening to all the fucken bitching and moaning. And I wish people would leave our PM alone she’s is doing a good job trying to fix the f….. n mess we are in. And it’s the same old people whinging and moani g about fuck all. Piss of if you don’t like it here.

  4. Interestingly the 5 nurses in the team I work in all agreed to accept the offer. Yhey are now pissed off with.the NZNO.
    And an experienced nurse I know(61 year old) can’t get a job after applying to 3 positions, so the whole desperate for staff would appear to be more about selective preferences than desperation.
    So there is a lot more going on behind the scenes than some uneducated opinions would lead you to believe. Many, many staff believe the particular DHB I work for is a shambles from a governance level down. The same people have been at that level for 10 years plus.

  5. Moaning about how poor Little is won’t change things, people will hate on him as John indicates. Imagine if Little just gave the nurses what they wanted, better pay and conditions, bearing in mind the nurses want these because of Jonathon Colemans non inclusive negotiation style and why the need to ” catch up”?
    The outcry from the right would be deafening. “Little gives in to the nurses union”. ” Little favors nurses union over others”.
    We know the foaming at the mouth from these types.
    Personally I’d give nurses everything they want. They are the bread and butter of health but god help Little if he was to do that, the rabid right would lynch him.
    The solution is to keep negotiating, what’s yours John?

    • Yes Bert I agree keep negotiating some of our Nurses earn less than others for example our Maori Nurses working in Maori primary health earn less than those working for the DHBs. And our Kohanga Kaiako and some of our EC centers get lower pay than mainstream kindergarten teachers. But some of our Nurses already earn good money. However I know we have a shortage of Nurses and we can’t magic them up unless we let more foreign Nurses in and then we have housing and infrastructure issues. And this problem is in many sectors. People seem to be moaning a lot but many only have themselves to blame as they still vote for those wankers that cut the state sector and run it into the ground. And then its takes a very long time to put things right especially if we want to do it right and not fall into the same trap we are currently in. As for the recent polls the ones that count are the ones before the election.

  6. As leader of Labour he had the nick name Angry Andy and this trait is coming to the fore again. He twists the truth to suite himself .You only need to see how he changed his tune about the conditions at Pike River from applauding the owners to denigrating them and now walking away from the situation as there are no votes in carrying on as the families want . The same two face story occurred with the marajuana referendum while it went the way I want I to it was hardly a vote of convince in the status quo to shut down any debate .
    Go the nurses . I hope they stand up to his bullying . They have right on their side and the people behind them.

  7. Well that is one version of events. When Little gets to the point he tells nurses as Jonathon Coleman did” there is no more money, do more with less”, that will be the day he needs sacking.

    • I think you know me well enough through my comments that I felt Jonathan Coleman was not speaking for me when he made that statement . I failed to understand why the teachers and nurses gave in so easily to National fobing them off with their pay deals. When in hospital I was told that the 2018 settlement left many unhappy and Little should have known he was dealing with an angry crowd. As a union man he should have had an insight as to what was needed and pushed hard to save the government the bad look that this strike is causing .
      Chch DHB and now Wellington are both on notice for poor delivery in their Emergency Dept.If covid does come through the boarder could we cope.?

  8. Little is the perfect guy needed to bully nurses into accepting his will. He is a throwback from the past where arrogant bombastic rich males controlled the world because it was their way or the highway.

    • Speaking of bullies…

      Police Minister Poto Williams​ says she is supporting her shocked family members after National Party leader Judith Collins told a public meeting in Northland that “a lot of people want to bottle her”.

      And Seymour on housing…
      ““I haven’t read the report as I value my time on earth, and as a consequence I don’t read anything from the Human Rights Commission.
      “What the human rights commission could possibly hope to add, I have no idea.”

      Yes Ex Labour, that’s the alternative!

  9. I think you know me well enough through my comments that I felt Jonathan Coleman was not speaking for me when he made that statement . I failed to understand why the teachers and nurses gave in so easily to National fobing them off with their pay deals. When in hospital I was told that the 2018 settlement left many unhappy and Little should have known he was dealing with an angry crowd. As a union man he should have had an insight as to what was needed and pushed hard to save the government the bad look that this strike is causing .
    Chch DHB and now Wellington are both on notice for poor delivery in their Emergency Dept.If covid does come through the boarder could we cope.?

  10. Oi ,…! who were the bastard govt that raised the retirement age from 60 to 65? All those poor bastard manual workers who have knee, lower back, choric health issues still working on the roads in all weather as ‘foremen/women’ , in forestry, farming and any number of manual labour jobs… who did that to us?

    Some fat arsed Mont Pelerin society ‘report driven’ political sell out who didn’t do their accountancy numbers regarding the health burden on the ‘taxpayers’ need to treat their ills but instead figured on their temporary Drayhorse expediency/short lifespan for quick profits…

    And I think it was YOU , Labour, you scum rat sell outs.

    Ever hear of Phossy jaw you capitalist bastards?

    Here’s something to chew the cud on, you sell out scum.

    The Deadly Diseases Of Victorian Factory Workers | History Of Britain | Absolute History
    https://youtu.be/KWPgwo0CHbM?t=8

    Yeah,… ‘party of the workers’, my fat arse, you bastards.

  11. Oh Martyn and his inclination towards an early night and snuggling beneath the covers when the weather gets rough at night, I can understand that… but think of the mariners at sea, Martyn,…. think of the mariners at sea,… paid lads as they are…and you too, Ian Powel,…do us all a favor and think of the young lads at sea while we sleep.

    We owe them much favour.

    Looking Glass – Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)
    https://youtu.be/DVx8L7a3MuE?t=3

  12. I’m in favour of nurses receiving a pay increase.
    Always have been.
    If Andrew Little can negotiate an increase that satisfies both parties I will commend him.

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