I have been reassured, throughout my career, by the knowledge that I have the support and strength of the Australian Nursing Federation behind me should I have need of it. Though this, the (now mandatory) indemnity insurance, legal representation, and professional development programs are part of the reason why I’m a union member, the greater reason is that I’m well aware that the conditions I enjoy are thanks to the unionists who came before me.
From the eight-hour day to paid maternity leave, penalty rates to superannuation, workers’ compensation to Medicare, occupational health and safety to paid annual leave, the Award system to collective bargaining, the conditions many of us take for granted were fought for by workers – in some cases won at the cost of their lives. If I didn’t contribute to the maintenance and improvement of those conditions I would feel as though I were both letting down those who went before me and those who’ll come after me.
I was involved in the 2000 campaign that resulted in the world’s first nurse/midwife: patient ratios – though they reduce long term costs and improve patient outcomes, no Victorian government has agreed to retaining them without a fight. And though the world faces a dire nursing shortage (over a quarter of Australian nurses by 2025) and ratios improve nursing retention, though ratios result in fewer complications and shorter hospital stays, though they mean Victoria’s hospitals are treating more patients for a shorter period and lower cost, no State or Territory government has adopted them (NSW nurses won a modified version last year, after a long campaign that included a short-term strike). Without the tireless work, courage, strength and dedication of ANF (Vic branch) Executive, staff and members, the next two years would see an exodus of nurses from the public health system not seen since the Kennett years – at a time when patients are more acutely ill and in greater need of skilled nursing care than ever before.
I have been watching the still-unfolding investigation of the Health Services Union with interest; though I understand concerns that the taint of corruption will spread to the union movement as a whole, I believe any HSU-based corruption is isolated I refer you to the 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index ratings – Australia ranks as the least corrupt country in the G20, and equal 8th worldwide with Switzerland. I have no concerns about the integrity of the ANF, and believe the ACTU takes the issue of corruption very seriously. When it comes to back-door deals and under-the-table payments I’m far more concerned about the lobbying power of special interest groups and the government.
I believe that, in this age of increased casualisation of the work force, economic uncertainty, rising unemployment and the belief (widespread among many of my younger colleagues, if not the Australian workforce as a whole) that the status quo is some kind of natural state of affairs, that there is more a need for unions than ever.
Addit: I forgot to add: though union membership’s dropping nationwide, ANF membership’s growing – in Victoria the union represents some 75% of practicing nurses and midwives, across all sectors and at all levels; another 1,000 joined just during the recently-resolved acute public EBA campaign. The more nurses and midwives who are members, the stronger the Federation is, but also the better it represents the workforce.