The history of the first state-wide strike of nurses in Victoria, Australia over wages and staff/patient ratios. It ended in a partial victory, despite the unions' lack of militancy, and more importantly laid the groundwork of rank-and-file organisation which was to play a key role in the 1986 nurses' strike.
Coupled with the cuts in health spending and inevitable staff shortages, there were some other changes in nursing. The introduction of new technology actually meant that more staff were required to run the newly created highly specialised nursing units. Another consequence was patients spending shorter time in hospital and, with a higher turnover of patients, there was more work in admissions and discharge procedures. The higher turnover also created more stress in nurse-patient relations, with more people to relate to and less time to do it in. Without doubt it was an explosive situation. But the government, as before, relied on nurses’ dedication and did not heed the changing times.
By September 1985, nurses had had enough. Because they were still led by the old guard, the response began slowly. A night time mass meeting, attended by 1,700 members, was held on 23 September. A log of claims for wage rises and improved conditions, including staff-patient ratios, was adopted. Bans on wearing uniform and use of agency staff were to be in force from 30 September. In the second week of October, nurses were to implement the RANF (and award) staff-patient ratio. A stop-work meeting was planned, but not until mid-October. However, hospitals were encouraged to hold their own stop-work meetings to discuss implementing the bans. The most important indication from the members that this time they meant business, was the narrow defeat of a motion calling for immediate rolling strikes.
Health minister David White responded with an offer on wages and conditions to be phased in over three years and well below what the union wanted. They also had to sign a three-year no-strike clause and increase productivity. The union rejected the offer and kept up the pressure.
After the nurses began working to the RANF staff-patient ratio from 7 October, White retaliated by directing management at the Alfred Hospital to scab. Management complied and, much to the government’s fury, nurses at the hospital staged an immediate 24-hour walkout. Industrial Relations minister Steve Crabb fumed, ‘It’s outrageous. I’ve never had a strike pulled on me in the middle of negotiations.’ But the nurses were even angrier and, on 11 October, they agreed to an indefinite strike from the following Thursday, 17 October. After voting for the strike, thousands took to the streets and rallied outside White’s office. RANF secretary Barbara Carson warned, ‘I think the government has been indifferent to the RANF and the nurses have said, "Here’s what we feel about that."’
Negotiations continued but got no further so, from 17 October, nurses across the state walked, leaving only skeleton staffing behind. They picketed hospitals, handed out leaflets to passers-by, collected money. The general feeling was that it was now or never. Most had never been on strike before, and the media called them industrially naive, but it was quite the contrary. Wendy, a student nurse at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, explained: “Nurses’ conditions were so bad because people haven’t fought to change them. But now nurses have changed. In the strike they’re learning a lot about government tactics and union power.”
David White and the media claimed patients would die and conducted a misinformation campaign, and there were threats to hold up the national wage case. The strikers were not intimidated. ‘Patients’ lives were endangered before all of this,’ said another Royal Melbourne student. ‘There was no proper care because of lack of staff and supervision.’ A placard: ‘Overworked nurses: under-cared-for patients’ said it all.
This time the HEF officials did not back the strike. However, rank and file workers at many hospitals were openly supportive. HEF members at Prince Henry’s met and voted not to cross picket lines. Unfortunately the nurses didn’t set them up, precisely for that reason.
The strike ended after five days with only a partial victory. The government’s offer on staffing ratios was vague but they did agree to co-operate with the RANF on admissions and discharges. But lower level nurses would get no increases - they would have to wait for arbitration. A number of nurses at the final mass meeting called this a sell-out; they did not share the officials’ confidence in ‘neutral umpires’. But the main thing was that they had learned to strike. They would put this experience to good use in the nurses' strike of 1986.