Thousands of public sector nurses and midwives went on strike yesterday in New South Wales (NSW) at locations across the state, demanding minimum nurse-to-shift ratios of 3:1 in the emergency services and 4:1 in the neighborhoods and a salary increase of 7%. It was the fourth statewide walkout by NSW nurses this year.
There is widespread anger among workers over the unbearable conditions, including chronic underfunding, relentless workloads and overcrowding, exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
In August, 94% of nurses and midwives voted in favor of the strike. They have repeatedly called for united action with other workers engaged in labor disputes, including other health workers, railway staff and teachers. This was reflected in the comments of nurses who spoke to World Socialist Website reporters yesterday.
The Nurses and Midwives Association of New South Wales (NSWNMA), however, designed the strike to deepen the isolation of nurses. Rather than mass rallies, workers attended demonstrations spread across 60 separate locations, mostly outside individual hospitals.
Slightly larger marches took place in Newcastle and Wollongong, along with a 24-hour ‘picket’ at Westmead Hospital in Sydney’s west, cordoned off by security to allow people through. As in previous strikes, NSWNMA members working in the private sector were excluded, as were other health workers not covered by the union.
At these limited events, union speakers issued plaintive pleas to political parties to “listen” to striking nurses, a line advanced by the NSWNMA since the first statewide nurses’ strike in february. Again, the sole blame for the crisis in hospitals has been placed on the Liberal NSW Government and Prime Minister Dominic Perrottet.
Michael Whaites, Acting Deputy General Secretary, said in a speech at Sydney’s Westmead Hospital: “We are fed up that Perrottet is not listening…qualified and experienced healthcare practitioners…He is while Perrottet is listening”.
The thrust of the speeches was to deflect nurses’ anger at the Perrottet government, while concealing the role of Labor and the union itself in creating the dire conditions faced by healthcare workers.
A union spokesperson at the Royal Prince Alfred (RPA) Hospital in Sydney said: ‘What is the ALP [Australian Labor Party] saying? Nothing.”
Cultivating the illusion that Labor could be reformed, she continued: “They are in negotiations with us, and will see in the coming weeks if we can reach an agreement.”
NSW Labor leader Chris Minns has made it clear he opposes nurse-to-patient ratios per shift, and that any pay rises for the public sector must be linked to ‘productivity’ increases.
The federal Labor government has pledged an austerity program to cut wages and called on workers to make ‘sacrifices’ and swallow ‘harsh drugs’.
The COVID-19 “let it rip” agenda, in which virtually all public health measures were dropped in line with big business demands, was directly imposed by Labor and unions. This homicidal bipartisan policy is responsible for more than 11,000 deaths in 2022 alone and the ongoing waves of infection have created a disaster in the hospital system.
This comes on top of decades of cuts to public health funding, made equally by Labor and Liberal-national, state, territorial and federal governments. This continued reduction in resources, jobs and wages was imposed by the NSWNMA and other health unions, which suppressed any opposition to the escalating assault.
Newtown NSW Greens MP Jenny Leong was given the podium to speak at the RPA protest. Like the NSWNMA speakers, she blamed the Liberal-National government entirely.
This is in line with the whole orientation of the Greens, which is to serve as the left front of Labor in elections, before voting with the big party on most issues.
The NSWNMA’s attempt to turn the struggle of nurses and midwives into a protracted campaign for Labor and the Greens ahead of the March 2023 election is a dead end for working people. As developments since the federal elections in May have already shown, nothing will be solved for working people by the election of these capitalist parties.
The Socialist Equality Party intervened in the strike, backing the nurses and stressing the need to form rank-and-file committees to expand the struggle. Union officials at Westmead Hospital snatched the SEP statements from workers, with one remarking on the material: “It may be the truth, but it’s not our message.
It is not a simple slip. The NSWNMA is highly sensitive to the material, which exposes its record of betrayal and concessions, and calls for unified action from nurses and other health workers, as well as teachers, railway workers and wider layers. This is the “message” the union is desperate to suppress.
While the first two strikes in February and March this year also excluded all healthcare workers other than nurses from public hospitals covered by the NSWNMA, they included rallies of thousands of nurses and midwives in central Sydney, defying court-ordered bans.
It was not until late June that the work stoppage action was called again, in response to an offer of a 3% pay deal by Perrottet. The NSWNMA refused to call a mass rally, instead holding a limited work stoppage meeting at Sydney Town Hall, which was attended by just over 1,000 nurses.
Despite the demoralizing design of the case, workers voted overwhelmingly for a mass strike and passed a motion to advance a 7% wage demand, despite objections from the union leadership.
In late July, protests took place outside two hospitals in western Sydney. These were little more than public relations stunts attended by workers in their spare time.
While the NSWNMA says the conditions facing nurses in NSW are unique to NSW and the Liberal-National Government, health workers across the country face the same crisis.
In several states, most with Labor governments, struggles are beginning to erupt among health care workers, despite the suppression of unions, which are mostly determined to prevent any unified struggle across state lines.
In the NSW public sector, more than 100,000 other workers, in health, education, transport and more broadly, have also engaged in strikes this year. All are subject to the same punitive cap on public sector wages as nurses.
In each of these strikes, workers have expressed support for unified action in the public sector, but unions have ensured that workers remain isolated.
The railway workers have been negotiating a new company agreement for more than 18 months. During this period, the Rail, Tram and Bus Union refused to call for mass strikes, instead staging a handful of limited shutdowns over the months, while calling on governments to meet at the table and negotiate.
Railway workers are now the target of virulent denunciations and threats from the Perrottet government, which is carrying out the agenda of the entire ruling class. This frontal assault aims to set a precedent that will then be repeated against all workers, including nurses.
Workers must learn from these experiences. Nurses and midwives cannot advance their struggle in the grip of unions. This will result in wage cuts, continued destruction of working conditions, and the dispersal and isolation of workers.
The perspective advanced by the NSWNMA during yesterday’s strike demonstrates the urgent need for nurses and midwives to break free from unions and form independent rank-and-file committees in their workplaces, to coordinate and expand their struggle to include workers across the country and internationally.
These committees will provide the mechanism for workers to hold open discussions, share information and prepare a unified counteroffensive against the growing attacks on jobs, wages and conditions for the entire working class.
Above all, what is needed is a struggle for workers’ governments that would implement socialist policies so that society is democratically reorganized in the interests of ordinary working people. The fight for high quality public health care, accessible to all, cannot be won while the vast wealth created by the working class is controlled by the financial and corporate elite.