Across New Zealand, 30,000 nurses employed by District Health Boards (DHB) embarked on a 24-hour strike on Thursday, July 12. This was after they voted to reject a fourth pay offer from the government over a period of less than a year.
Nurses in New Zealand are dissatisfied with their salaries which have only risen marginally in the past 13 years, not keeping up with inflation. They are lagging far behind teachers who have similar qualifications, as well as police who have lower requirements and no study loans to repay. Nurses also have limited pay progression, reaching the top step of their pay within five years. Nurses are furthermore expressing serious concern about the effects of short-staffing and excessive workloads on the health and safety of the public. Nurses are resigning due to the low pay and work pressure, and many are relocating to Australia where the salaries are much better.
Voting through the New Zealand Nurses Organization (NZNO) nurses rejected the government’s third and doubled-up pay offer, and a strike was planned for July 5. After further negotiation between NZNO and the DHB’s a second offer was put on the table and the strike was called off. It provided for a 12.5-15.9% increase – but introduced over a period of two years; two additional steps before registered nurses reached the pay ceiling; and the creation of 500 more full-time nursing positions. Many nurses commented that safe staffing levels should be a responsibility of DHB’s and should not form any part of salary negotiation packages.
The NZNO recommended that this offer be accepted. However, it entailed only a restructuring of the previous one and involving the same amount of NZ 520 million. In another vote by members, this offer was rejected, and a strike was called for July 12. A last-ditch meeting between the NZNO and the DHB’s, which was ordered by the Employment Relations Authority, failed to avert the strike. The day before the strike spokeswoman for the DHB, Helen Mason, publicly criticized nurses for deciding on downing tools before the ERA could release its recommendations.
In preparation for the strike, DHB’s canceled elective procedures and contingency plans were made to provide life-preserving services. With the support of the NZNO, an agreed number of nurses worked during the strike as Life Preserving Services (LPS) nurses. Other personnel, such as doctors, pharmacists, and paramedics, were also called in to boost staff levels.
Social media carried numerous comments that there was far more staff available than on an ordinary working day. “Why is it that during a strike the DHB’s go to all lengths to ensure minimum staffing levels yet turn a blind eye to the unsafe levels every day?” wrote a nurse on Facebook. Even senior doctors reported that there were more nurses to provide life-preserving services than the number of permanent staff usually on duty and that these arrangements confirmed just how under-staffed the facilities normally are.
The public appears mostly to have supported the nurses. Many joining in, others waving and hooting as they went past picket lines or writing messages of encouragement on social media. There was however also some negative reporting in the media calling nurses greedy and selfish for not accepting what was on offer. Some members of the public also complained of the inconvenience to them of having hospital visits and procedures canceled – not bearing in mind the long-term consequences to the health and safety of the public of losing increasing numbers of nurses due to low pay combined with the stressful working conditions.
The 24-hour strike is now over. The next steps will entail further negotiation although some nurses are calling for immediate notice for further strike action.
Mr. Winston Peters, Acting Prime Minister, said on July 16 that, given all the other priorities, it was unlikely that they would be able to come up with more money than the package already on offer. He hoped that further talks would avert another strike. He also believed that there was a faction intent on striking. “There’s a whole lot of pent-up fervor that built up over the years that we were inheriting. In the end, we’re going to put our best foot forward,” said Peters. “We’re going to go into these talks post this strike with the best intent and hope we succeed.”
On the other hand, the NZNO has stated that an agreement could not be reached unless more money was forthcoming. The band-aid was not big enough to address years of underfunding. “Nurses and midwives do not trust that their work environment or patient care will improve in the short term,” said New Zealand Nurses Organisation manager Cee Payne.