2011/12 – media coverage
The main stream media coverage until March was, with rare exceptions, simplistic and distressingly pro-government, with most headlines and news bites focusing on the pay aspect of our claim. I’ve touched on the issue of campaigning, nursing and money briefly before (here), and am unpacking the question in the back of my brain, so there’ll be a post focusing on that some time soon.

The tide turned in March when, after some weeks of softening, the press began strongly supporting us. But for those first few months, from December (when things began heating up), there were many times I shouted at the TV screen or vented my frustration at the press in private chats. Because I ran daily searches for coverage, this was also my first prolonged exposure to the socialist media, and I must point out that my experience with socialist reporting of issues I know comprehensively is limited to that of our EBA negotiations/dispute.

In general I found that the first third to half of each article gave a more comprehensive, and often nuanced, picture of what we were fighting for; every time I’d be pleased, particularly in the months up to March, because the contrast with the main stream coverage was so sharp. And then, every time, I’d be profoundly disappointed and angry, because the rest of the article would (without exception in the coverage I read up to March 16th) explain that our leadership’s focus on legal action was faulty; that stopping action when the government refused to agree until we did so was a ‘betrayal’; that our Executive was more interested in “the continuation of the union structure over victory”; that their strategy didn’t reflect the wishes of the members; that overt compliance with a Federal Court order was “cynical”; and even patronisingly inform a nurse (and member) that s/he was wrong to support the Federation and didn’t understand what was at stake.

Even after the end of a historic campaign, the criticism from this quarter continued – with issue taken on a cursory reading of the agreement’s points rather than an understanding of what we really won, or of what was really at stake. Certainly throughout the campaign and beyond the Left press showed little if any idea of the need for subtlety, long-range planning and strategy that was necessary to make this campaign a success.

Much of the Left coverage talked about how nurses had strong public support throughout the campaign. As I’ve mentioned previously, and as someone actually on the front lines who kept a close idea on the media, that’s just not the case. We certainly had sympathy from many members of the public, and I had both patients and their family members voice support and encouragement. I wore my campaign shirts every single day from December 1st until March 17th – the only two occasions I was in public without one was during an ‘undercover’ walk through my workplace one afternoon, and during the filming of our campaign ad, and even then I changed out of it on site.

I had members of the public offer support, and ask if they could help – I always had petitions with me, and I often asked people to write to their MP, the media, and to sign our online petition. But I also had people tell me to get back to work (long before nurses left the bedside), that I should be grateful to have a job at all, that I ought to appreciate any pay I got, that if nurses were unhappy we should step aside and let overseas nurse take our place.

I know of two nurses who were spat at while in the street, for wearing campaign shirts, and I had my fair share of overtly hostile abuse when seeking signatures for our petition. Online Herald-Sun comments were often vile (I vividly remember the charming person who referred to us as cockroaches), and observations like this were not atypical: “50% of an RNs workload could be done by an untrained helper. It’s still important stuff (feeding, washing etc) but hardly requires 3 yrs training!![source – response to the blog post]” – I addressed the question of why we so strongly resisted the introduction of minimally-qualified aides yesterday.

The need for public support was often referred to during the campaign, and it’s certainly a factor – both because governments care about the sentiment of the public (because that indicates votes, and that’s their primary focus), and because it bolstered the spirits of members.

What was most often suggested by the Socialist Left was that we all go out on strike – it would bring the state to its knees and make the government run to the negotiating table, where we could forget about compromising to save ratios and conditions, and finally get the money we deserve.

Forget the fact that every single clinical nurse I know would rather earn less and keep our conditions, and ignore the fact that there was no possibility of an outcome that both kept conditions and brought us to interstate pay parity. The inescapable, most significant fact that ANF leadership recognises and critics clearly don’t is this – the average Victorian nurse is female, in her mid-forties, not politically or industrially active, often the parent of dependents and/or concerned about the current and impending needs of aging parents, living (like most Australians) from pay to pay, with little leeway for a drop in income, and very concerned about issues of domestic finance.

When we couldn’t even get capacity attendance at significant stop work meetings, when I couldn’t persuade my own colleagues to come out during their (unpaid, and therefore undockable) tea breaks to support the walk outs, and when many members didn’t even keep up with the emailed updates of the most significant campaign in over a quarter of a century, mass strike action would never have happened. It just wouldn’t have.

The last time Victoria’s nurses withdrew labour was in 1986, after almost a year of protracted negotiations with a government that ignored promises and dropped the pay of experienced nurses to levels of graduates. It was a campaign wholly about pay, with no ratios, skill mix or hours of work (the key planks of the government’s offensive) at play. And even with this far longer lead time, with a straightforward one-note concept, and with a very different workforce and membership profile, in a political environment that had more union support than now, the effect was not what the current Left commentary foresaw for us.

The ’86 strike dragged on for fifty days. It was during my last year at school, and I began my hospital-based nursing training thirty months later, so though I wasn’t involved the Strike coloured every aspect of my early career – my teachers had been there, advanced students and the registered nurses I worked with were there, and the conditions that courageous nurses had fought for were not taken for granted. I clearly recall being chastised by a Charge Nurse for taking away a meal tray because it wasn’t a nursing duty – Steve had gone on strike to ensure that non-nursing duties were performed by non-nursing staff, so that nurses could focus on patient care instead of cleaning beds and making supper. When I skipped a tea break I was pulled in to Barb’s office and informed that conditions that aren’t utilised can be taken away, and that it was my responsibility to safeguard them and my own wellbeing in order to guarantee my own future and the preservation and improvement of conditions for the nurses who came after me.

The Strike came at significant cost – I still work alongside nurses who left the Federation during the Strike, because they disagreed with the action, because they feared for patient safety, or because they couldn’t afford to walkout and they didn’t feel comfortable maintaining membership. I’ve heard firsthand accounts of the pressure that was brought to bear, on and from all sides.

At the December 16 meeting our Secretary, Lisa Fitzpatrick, spoke passionately about the importance of respecting our colleagues, whatever their industrial decisions. She had been on the finance committee in 1986, making decisions about which nurses in need received hardship funds, and how much. Lisa spoke about the conflict of nurses who left the strike to return to the bedside, about how difficult it was to work alongside non-striking nurses after it was over, and of the importance of remembering that our battle would one day be over and we too would have to return to collegiality. There were many times, in the thick of our action this year, particularly in the heated days of March, when I had to remind myself and my passionate, active fellow reps that the campaign would end. Despite that, some of my relationships with friends and colleagues will never be the same.

Had we voted to go out en masse it would have been a longer, nastier and more desperate version of the 1986 strike, with a poorer outcome and significant division within the Federation, between nurses, and a drop in membership that even Australia’s strongest union can’t afford. More importantly, it would not have delivered us the outcome we achieved – we would have been bargaining from a  position of weakness, with an opponent who, then and since, has shown they will not back down without a bloody and determined fight.