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I recently wrote about the disappointment I felt at the distortion of our EBA campaign by the Left wing press. Though I posted links to support my claims, I didn’t address any articles individually – spurred on by a post today on the ANF’s Facebook page (by a person who hasn’t posted there previously), I shall explore one of the articles I referenced earlier this week, and which Dusty Duncan (apparently an ANF member) brought to the attention of our membership with the alarming introduction:

Read the truth fellow nurses. We got shafted by OUR OWN UNION! The ANF is in bed with the government and hospitals. You take an ANF official along to any meetings for support and chances are, they will there to get the best deal for THE HOSPITAL.

The article to which Ms or Mr Duncan linked is “Australian nurses’ union imposes real wage cut” by Patrick O’Connor and which was published on the World Socialist Web Site a day after the final acute public sector statewide members’ meeting.

I shall address the claims Mr O’Connor, a candidate for the upcoming Melbourne by-election, makes in both general terms and take up specific points. I imagine that readers of the WSWS need no notification of Mr O’Connor’s biases.

I ought to be upfront about mine – I have been a member of and a job rep for the ANF since September 1992, the month I first registered. I have been involved with all the campaigns since then, but must confess to not having been a particularly good rep – I haven’t attended tri-annual training, and have been to only one of the annual Delegates conferences. However, I not only strongly support the activities of the Federation, I have been impressed with the strength, integrity and determination of the two state Secretaries who’ve served ANF (Vic. branch) since I joined – first Belinda Morieson and, since 2001, Lisa Fitzpatrick. My faith in them has never wavered, for they have never given me cause.

Since December, because of the campaign, I had the privilege of spending a lot of time with ANF staff across a range of roles, from the current Executive and members of the previous Executive, to organisers, media, recruitment and support staff. I have, without exception, been impressed and awed by their dedication and commitment to, and passion for our best interests. Even more than that I have been stunned by their integrity.

Let’s start with the first paragraph, where O’Connor  opens with a clear indication of where he stands, branding the Agreement as a “sell-out deal” that was “quickly rammed through a mass meeting of members…” and which resulted in “a substantial real wage cut and a significant… ero[sion]” of ratios. There are two other matters, which are expanded on later, so I’ll address them then.

I suspect that anything short of a 25% pay increase and full retention of conditions would have been seen as collusion and/or selling out, and that’s an ideological position I can’t address with facts. I can, however, speak to the speed with which the Agreement was accepted – we were given the same time frame and opportunity to ask questions before voting in favour of this EBA on March 16 as we’ve been given previously, with the new requirement of AEC-overseen voting: the EBA was overwhelmingly accepted.

Paragraph two gives a brief and benign overview of our actions during the campaign. Paragraph three, on the other hand, is the opening salvo in a pitched anti-Federation battle: “However, the overriding priority for the ANF bureaucracy was to maintain their privileged position within the health sector and to prevent the nurses’ dispute from developing into a political struggle against the state and federal governments.”

I imagine, from O’Connor’s tenor throughout, that the privileged position here is that of the Executive and officials, rather than any esteemed position nurses and midwives themselves hold (the Health Minister is on the record as only acknowledging that nursing care “may contribute positively to a person’s life expectancy or to the quality of life they experience” – source; emphasis added). It’s an extraordinary claim, and I’m very interested to know what the author means by this, as he doesn’t expand on or support it subsequently. The AMA, perhaps, has a privileged place, insofar as the degree to which it’s consulted by state government, and the Allied Health unions are generally quite quiet, but as their combined members total a fraction of the roughly 93,000-strong number of nurses and midwives registered in Victoria (some 70% of whom are ANF members) that’s not surprising.

I would not be surprised to learn that the ANF Executive took into account not just what is currently happening politically on a local level but also the dynamics involved Federally, and in other states and territories – we are a branch of a national union, we have to negotiate for Federal funding (particularly in aged care, which is predominantly federally funded), and we operate in the complexity that is the real world. It is not now and, to the best of my knowledge, ever has been the case that Federal politics is embroiled in state industrial matters – even in 1986 the dispute was local. The only kind of exception I can imagine would be if the state and federal government’s were the same party, and a local issue promised trouble for a national election – not the case here, where different parties are in power.

So O’Connell’s next paragraph, which criticises Federal Workplace Relations minister Bill Shorten and the Gillard government is very interesting. In an unprecedented move, Minister Shorten addressed an ANF statewide members’ meeting twice – first when we were voting on taking illegal, unprotected action, and then when Lisa announced an agreement. Were she colluding against members to ingratiate herself with the ALP, locally or nationally, such an overt endorsement would be most clumsy.

My reading of the Minister’s attendance and address, without any insider information or discussion, was as an indication of both his own and the ALP’s support for nurses and midwives, and a tacit promise of a more harmonious resolution next time around, should there be a Labour Premier in power.

While it’s true that some of the issues we faced this time were the result of the Rudd-era’s changes from WorkChoices to FairWork Australia as the industrial relations legislative framework, the seeds were sown by the previous Liberal government. I’d be delighted to see a return to an Industrial Relations Commission-style of IR legislation, but it, too, was flawed.

O’Connor’s final comment, that Prime Minister Gillard’s austerity policies contributed to our plight ignores the fact that public hospital funding is primarily and substantially at a state level – the responsibility here lies squarely at the feet of the Premier.

O’Connor now turns his attention back to the local stage, and to the ANF: “The union shut down the nurses’ strike action on March 7, declaring that the Liberal government’s agreement to negotiate through Fair Work Australia marked a ‘breakthrough.'”

As the entire point of the walk outs was to achieve a negotiated outcome with the oversight of an independent FairWork commissioner, ending the action is not “shutting it down” – members voted that the walkouts would continue until we had the government’s agreement to supervised negotiation. Had the strike action continued not only would participants be breeching the expressed will of members but would also have undermined any authority ANF had to negotiate on our behalf.

In the remainder of this paragraph O’Connell returns to the non-question of time to deliberate on the negotiated outcome – having been at the meeting where we voted to accept the outcome, having heard Lisa’s account of what we won, what we gave up, and where we compromised, and having read the EBA itself several times, I can find no section that is different from what I was told on March 16th.

One of the hallmarks of Lisa’s leadership is the patience she has with members questions – so many have been the times I’ve marvelled as she’s replied, with no sign of anything but interest, to the third consecutive moronic question that was already addressed half an hour earlier. At several meetings frustrated members have moved that we proceed to a vote, already, and Lisa’s responded by noting that there are still people with questions, stressing the importance of all present members understanding and agreeing with the proposal before us.

It is clearly unfeasible to consult with every member individually, and impossible to negotiate an outcome every single person will be happy with – if members want to know more than they have to make an effort to attend meetings, where they can hear information first-hand, and where they have the opportunity to ask questions.

Uniquely, in this case, the informal vote on March 16th was followed by an AEC-run ballot – with well over a month to reflect on the Agreement, with access to the EBA itself, and with plenty of opportunity to discuss it, the membership overwhelmingly voted in favour of the Agreement.

O’Connell moves on to the question of pay – for clarity and flow I’ll respond to his points out of order, starting with the matter of back pay. It is true that in every other EBA we have been back paid to the expiration of the previous Agreement – in this case that was a full five months before the nominated 2011/12 EBA start date, and that means a lot of unpaid back pay.

Premier Baillieu announced, within weeks of assuming leadership, that no EBA would include back pay. Even his cosy police agreement, which was achieved without significant wrangling, didn’t include back pay – like this government’s self-imposed 2.5% pay ceiling (which, oddly, didn’t apply to politicians), I suspect there is no likelihood of this being overtly breached.

There will, instead be tacit and covert arrangements that go some way toward compensation. For the police this was a one-off $1,000 bonus; for us it’s a bi-annual direct payment ($1000 the first year, $900 subsequently, pro rata’d for part-time staff) that’s ostensibly to assist nurses and midwives to meet the relatively new requirement we have a minimum of 20 hours per year of continuing education.

The funds do not need to be used for this purpose – for nurses in permanent employment the hours can be easily met with minimal exertion through inservices, and for all nurses and midwives independent study (reading journal articles, for example) counts, along with education packages , conferences, seminars, and even supporting students. If I ignore the conferences I went to last year I’ve managed over 200 hours of education in the past twelve months, without trying, and for the most part without significant expense.

The bonus may not form part of our base rate, and that means casual staff won’t receive it, but it’s pay that comes without strings, and which we neither had before nor that was given to us by the government but was instead fought for by our officials, so my position is that it therefore can be calculated.

“One category of nurses,” O’Connell notes, “is now so poorly paid that a 2.5 percent annual wage increase, plus the professional development allowances, is equivalent to a 21 percent rise over four years.” What he omits to tell the reader is that this category is our highest-earning nurses – before the CPD allowance Directors of Nursing will earn between $1,575/week (for a hospital of 13 beds or fewer) to $2,491.50 (for a 701+ bed hospital) at the beginning of the Agreement, rising to $1,696.20 – $2,683/week respectively. Like all public hospital employees, DONs are entitled to salary packaging, reducing their taxable income.

The final criticism O’Connell makes regards the new clause which gives employers the possibility of altering nurse/midwife: patient ratios. Having just today addressed this very question with a concerned member, I can appreciate why this gives rise to anxiety – ratios are, in Lisa’s words, Victorian nursing’s first-born child.

Here’s O’Connell’s take:

“Previously, hospital management required the express permission of affected nurses to operate shifts below the mandated ratio. Now, however, all that is needed is that ‘the employer must consider the consequences of any proposal to go below ratios, in good faith’, supposedly taking into account various factors including ‘nursing staff satisfaction’ and ‘quality of care/clinical risk.’ The union claimed that such ‘strict criteria’ would only be warranted in ‘very limited circumstances’, but the reality confronting ordinary nurses will be very different. The clause will be mercilessly exploited by hospital management desperate to cut spending in line with federal and state government directives.”

What he doesn’t mention is that this is a modification of old Clause 42, which allowed for redistribution of staff and above-ratio patient loads under some circumstances. The same considerations apply – before any change can be made, all relevent issues must be addressed. Key among these are nursing-sensitive patient outcomes – patient complications (like pressure sores, falls and medication errors) that lessen with higher numbers of nurses and soar once nursing numbers are cut.

The only wholly new component is Clause 42.4, which allows the supervised trial of alternative staffing models, but only with review, and with reversion to the ratios unless previous benchmarks are met or surpassed.

This clause is the only section of the EBA that could be termed ‘regressive’ – though this is the way O’Connell refers to the Agreement in toto. He quotes an unnamed nurse who posted online her (or his) opinion that the government used ratios as a red herring to distract us from a financially based campaign.  I believe that the focus every government has had on losing ratios belies this – had we agreed to sacrifice safe staffing we could have gained far higher pay increases, at the cost of the system.

Though he has not demonstrated it throughout the article, O’Connell describes the ANF outcomes as a ‘betrayal’, unsurprisingly concluding with the SEP refrain:

..  it is impossible to fight for nurses and other sections of workers to fight for their basic rights within the straitjacket of the trade unions. As the Socialist Equality Party has raised from the outset, what is needed is a rank-and-file rebellion against these organisations and a political fight against the state and federal governments on the basis of a socialist perspective.

With that philosophy as a fundamental plank of SEP policy, there is no union-based outcome that would ever satisfy O’Connell.

As I noted a few days ago,  nurses and midwives are not a radicalisable population. I dearly wish there were – perhaps, had more nurses and midwives been more invested in the EBA we would have had an even stronger, and certainly faster, result. Here’s the thing, though – they’re just not. There will not be a rank-and-file rebellion, and given the numbers of nurses I know who voted for the current Premier, there is no chance is a widespread adoption of a Socialist platform by nurses and midwives.

We did not get the best-in-all-worlds outcome. We did, however, get the best outcome possible in this world, with this government, and this membership. The radical approach advocated by the Left wing would have meant leaving behind the overwhelming majority of our membership; that is not only contrary to the ethos of the Federation, it would have resulted in a weaker, poorer outcome.

My position is that organisations and movements need leaders. I believe the best interests of my profession, and of the population I serve, are met by elected officials who understand the demands of my work, the nature of the challenges I face, and the priorities of my colleagues. Some unions represent multiple interests, which seems to me almost by definition to mean that at least some of the time there will be conflict between the interests of different parties – ANF only represents nurses and midwives, its’ officials (and majority of staff) are nurses and/or midwives, and the Federation’s priorities are member-led. We got the EBA we were prepared to fight for. Many of us fought long and hard, and we are happy.