The history of the second state-wide strike of nurses in Victoria, Australia against cuts and over wages, conditions and staff/patient ratios, which won its demands, with the solidarity of other workers.
Nurses are often seen as the archetypal ‘handmaidens’ of men. Yet if there was ever an experience that demolished this image, it was the Victorian nurses’ strike of 1986, in which a predominantly female workforce took on and defeated the State Labour government.
Nurses’ militancy stemmed from two different kinds of experiences. The first was of working within the system, taking part in government reviews, lobbying and having high-level meetings with the health minister - and getting nowhere. Hospital waiting lists in Victoria reached 27,000 before the strike, and the Cain Labour government had cut the health budget, in real terms, every year since 1982-83. The toll on nurses was disastrous: they topped the 1986 compensation claims. 10,000 left nursing in 1985, and a further 8,000 did not renew their practicing certificates, leaving the State with a shortfall of about 14,000 nurses.
The second, over the decade or so before the strike, was of going outside the system, taking direct action.
A look at history
In April 1975, 4000 angry nurses stormed the Victorian parliament over staffing and pay. Then from 1977 to 1979, nurses in New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland marched, picketed and put on bans over staffing and bed closures. The action picked up gain in 1982-83 with more strikes, bans and rallies, mostly in New South Wales. In Sydney in 1982, nurses’ action stopped the closure of some city hospitals. In their rallies against further closures, city workers, including builders’ labourers, joined in. Then, on 19 November 1983, NSW nurses went out on a total strike. 1985 also saw Victorian nurses go on their first state wide strike.
NSW nurses also fought the Wran government for the 38-hour week and won in May 1986. But not without some determined action.
Build-up to confrontation
1986 began quietly, but there were a few rumblings. In February, Traralgon nurses struck over staff shortages, but were sold out by the combined efforts of the Royal Australian Nurses Federation (RANF) and Trades Hall Council leadership. In an ill-considered measure, the Cain government took steps to recruit hundreds of English and Irish nurses at a cost of $6 million. RANF fears that this would mean that the government would not tackle such issues as pay, childcare, car parking and security were swept aside by White. But then, when the government did delay, the union decided to take action over the overseas recruitment. Bans were put on taking nurses from England, and the government was presented with a list of demands about their employment.
Most nurses were still pinning their hopes on the State Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) hearings on wages and career structures, which had resulted from their industrial action in October 1985. On 20 June they apparently got what they wanted, wage rises through a changed career structure. There were, however, two immediate problems. Firstly the bulk of nurses, trainee and first year graduate nurses, would get nothing. Secondly, White seemed to be shifting his position on backdating. According to the Financial Review, the government and the IRC thought the RANF “would be obliged to accept such a generous decision even though its more junior members got nothing out of it.” But nurses thought differently.
Within five days of the decision, the union and the government were on a collision course. The issue was backdating pay rises. The private hospitals were refusing to pay up, so RANF members across the state put bans on. White then threatened not to backdate state-employed nurses’ pay unless they stopped their campaign, but the nurses refused to back down. Irene Bolger, union leader, said : “I can’t give any commitment which would be selling my members down the drain.”
With continuing bans and RANF threats to strike, the government retreated by the end of the month. But three days into the July, the RANF and the government were back in the IRC over differences in the reclassification and qualification allowances.
Then the IRC dropped its bombshell: on 7 August it formally abolished the qualification allowance. ‘We put in for a wage rise,’ said one organiser, ‘and we got a wage cut.’ White published figures purporting to show that no nurse would lose money, but RANF members knew differently.
A stop-work meeting on 14 August was angry, but still nurses held back strike action. Bans on elective admissions and wearing uniforms, operative from 20 August, were still the strategy. The meeting did endorse a log of claims which included pay rises for junior nurses. Tension was rising, newspaper editorials thundered that nurses could not be allowed the right to decide on patient admissions. Finally management began standing nurses down. The IRC threatened not to pass on the 2.3% national wage rise while they were taking industrial action.
The bans remained and by 29 August seventy-eight nurses had been stood down. At the Eye and Ear many called in sick the day after a union delegate was stood down. Management had to close three wards and run others themselves. At Leongatha nurses took a tea break following a stand down and did not return until the manager reconsidered his decision. At the Austin, three managers tried to stand over nurses, but in the first ward they entered RANF members formed a human barricade around a colleague targeted for a stand down. The angriest reaction came from St Vincent’s where 150 resigned in response to eight stand-downs.
Two weeks after putting the bans on, another stop work meeting was held. 3,500 nurses resolved to maintain the bans until the employers agreed to their claims. The motion also demanded immediate reinstatement without loss of pay or privileges for all those stood down.
The strike begins
Trying to work within the system finally came to an end when 5,000 nurses thronged to a 31 October stop-work, overwhelmingly endorsing a rank and file motion to go out indefinitely. Critical care units were still staffed and all wards had skeleton staff.
The next day, 1 November, most metropolitan hospitals were picketed although, for the first days, no goods were stopped. On the picket lines nurses met many well-wishers. Encouragement to ‘toot in support’ resulted in continuous honking of car horns outside hospitals. Food, firewood and money poured in, and letters and telegrams backing the RANF overloaded Australia Post’s deliveries to RANF headquarters in St Kilda.
The strike itself, while not completely in the hands of the rank and file, was often effectively run by the militants. When the people taking the action are the ones planning strike tactics, it strengthens their resolve. The strike committee met daily at the RANF offices to work out tactics and go over experiences. To ensure the members and other workers got the facts regularly, the union ran a program on community radio station 3CR and put out a daily strike bulletin. To maintain morale and solidarity, the strikers held regular picket line barbecues and sporting competitions, as well as fundraisers and an occasional champagne breakfast. Groups of nurses toured the country regions every day, building support and keeping country members informed.
The government refused to budge for weeks. Cain threatened the union with everything from manslaughter charges to deregistration and the Essential Services Act - threats which couldn’t be lightly disregarded, as his government had joined in moves to deregister and destroy the militant Builders Labourers Federation.
As the government wouldn’t negotiate, nurses started to escalate the action. Pickets began to stop non-essential supplies to the wards, and were backed by Transport Workers’ Union drivers. Cain responded by announcing that police would be used to break the pickets.
While relations between the RANF and HEF at some hospitals were good, with strong rank and file support, the HEF leadership publicly sided with the government. Secretary Les Butler instructed his members to cross picket lines. At hospitals like the Royal Melbourne most of the members did, but at Prince Henry’s, Queen Victoria and Western General, among others, they refused. HEF meetings at Prince Henry’s agreed not to touch any goods brought in by scabs, and threatened a total walkout if police intervened.
The Trades Hall Council leadership played as despicable a role as the HEF officials. Secretary Peter March began by claiming he didn’t want to take responsibility for assisting the strike because it affected the health industry. That didn’t stop him from trying the very next day to force the RANF to hand over the dispute to Trades Hall.
By 19 November, forty hospitals were hit by the strike and building unions were threatening to impose bans. The IRC finally backed down from its refusal to arbitrate while the nurses were still out, and called private talks with all parties on 21 November. It was to no avail.
On 8 December, the RANF again escalated the action. Nurses began walking out of critical care wards. But even by this stage, 50% of hospital beds were still available, mostly through the private hospital system. And it was here that an important weakness emerged in the union’s industrial campaign.
Fresh from the daily picket line reps’ meeting, the member at PANCH announced the walkout. But when asked what nurses were going to do if the government didn’t respond, she replied, ‘Not work? It has to work.’ Having played their trump card, they had no strategy to continue building the strike if it failed.
And the government did refuse to negotiate, even after nurses left critical care wards. In fact, three days later, White escalated the dispute by announcing the government would instruct State Enrolled Nurses (SENs) to do the nurses work. The necessary legislation would be rushed through parliament. In this the leaderships of the Australian Medical Association and the HEF assisted him. Les Butler of the HEF said he had no objection to his members doing work usually carried out by RANF members.
However, this time the government had finally overstepped the mark. The RANF called national meetings to plan action over the use of SENs, with support likely from the more militant New South Wales and Queensland associations. Butler would probably also have been faced with widespread refusal by SENs to scab, led by hospitals like Prince Henry’s. Queen Victoria HEF members had already openly refused to obey union directives on the picket line, and there was flak from the union’s interstate branches. In the ACT, for example, the HEF had joined forces with the RANF over staffing and wage demands, and had publicly supported the Victorian RANF from the beginning. An important, but little-publicised factor was that SENs, in a reversal of previous trends, had begun to leave the HEF and join the RANF. They were actually out on strike themselves.
While the Cain government did not publicly back down on the SENs until 17 December, the only real weapon it now had left was the ACTU. With the IRC opening up a loophole for ACTU intervention, the government was able to manoeuvre itself out of its dead-end position. After lengthy discussions, the RANF and ACTU finally agreed on a joint case to be put to the Commission on 15 December. The RANF had made some concessions, but the ACTU had agreed to all its major claims. Or at least, that’s what they told the union. But when presenting the case, the ACTU’s Jenny Acton started backtracking. When Irene Bolger tried to stop her, she accused the RANF of being ‘unable to understand the difference between substantial and total agreement’. But RANF members and their leadership understood the ACTU’s treachery only too well. Irene Bolger reported to that afternoon’s stopwork: ‘There is nothing joint about the proposal ¾ it is now just the ACTU proposal. I think we have been sold out.’ The nurses stayed out and the ACTU got the message, changing its position to one of total agreement with the RANF.
Two days before the strike ended, White publicly withdrew the threat to use SENs. The RANF sent its members back to the critical care wards. But still the government wouldn’t agree to the RANF/ACTU package. Irene Bolger held firm: ‘It’s not enough for an agreement in principle because we don’t trust him [David White] and our members don’t trust him. He needs to agree to the whole package.’ Finally on 19 December, White, on behalf of the Cain government, agreed to the ‘whole package’ and the nurses went back. A week later The Australian said of the nurses’ victory:
"Despite all the posturing ... the nurses did prove themselves strong enough industrially to make significant gains. It took five weeks of strike, but the government did finally agree."
Despite the problems, the nurses’ strike showed the power of solidarity
at the rank and file level, not only among the strikers but in the working
class as a whole. It showed how a predominantly female group of workers could
sustain mass industrial action, and give a lead to other workers of both sexes.
Like many other rebel women, their story offers an
inspiring alternative to conventional women’s history.
By Liz Ross.
Taken and edited from Rebel Women in Australian Working Class History by Sandra Bloodworth and Tom O'Lincoln. Published by Interventions, Melbourne, 1998.