Thousands of West Australian nurses went on strike on 25 November, rallying at parliament and in regional cities across the state, including Broome, Karratha and Bunbury. The strike took place in defiance of an Industrial Relations Commission ban and amid hostile media coverage and outrageous attacks by state Labor politicians.
During the pandemic, the state’s nurses were heralded as heroes. Yet, on the morning of the strike, at a media conference in the regional town of Collie, Premier Mark McGowan rebuked Australian Nursing Federation members for allegedly “engaging in unlawful and criminal activities”.
The government took out a full-page advertisement in the West Australian newspaper condemning the strike as unlawful. Mislabelled a “public service announcement”, the propaganda warned readers of “disruptions at public hospitals today due to unprecedented and unlawful industrial action”.
At the parliament, ANF state Secretary Janet Reah told the 4000-strong rally that she had received a 6am call from Health Minister Amber Jade Sanderson. The minister declined an invitation to address the rally, alleging that the nurses’ strike was “unlawful”. Sanderson, a former assistant secretary of United Voice, attempted to persuade Reah to call off the strike.
The IRC, lauded as an “independent umpire” by McGowan and media commentators, even went as far as ordering Perth bus company Horizon West not to transport nurses from Perth public hospitals to the 11am rally at parliament. Horizons West ignored the order.
The West Australian editorial branded the ANF as “shambolic” and a “discredit to WA nurses”. The paper reported that “an estimated 14,000 surgeries and procedures—including for cancer patients—won’t go ahead” as a result of the strike and lamented the “distress for affected patients and their families”.
The West editorial asserted that the IRC “is an independent, impartial third umpire and its decisions must be respected for our industrial relations system to function”. By a functioning industrial relations system, the West means one that serves bosses’ interests.
What isn’t functioning is the state’s health system. The death of seven-year-old Aishwarya Aswath while waiting for emergency treatment at the Perth Children’s Hospital in May last year, and the subsequent inquest, exposed a crisis of chronic understaffing. In March this year, two elderly Perth patients died while waiting for ambulances.
A West Australian Country Health Service nurse named Ellen told the rally on 25 November that short staffing in public hospitals has serious consequences, including workplace injuries and the deterioration of patients’ conditions “due to inadequate care”.
Nurse Tyler Ray addressed the state government’s hypocrisy in claiming to be concerned for the welfare of hospital patients:
“This government says that they care about the safety of patients and that the strike today has put patients in danger. But let’s talk about care. I didn’t see any member of the government put in an eighteen-hour shift last night as three of my colleagues did to provide care for our patients.”
When Ray announced that “those three colleagues are here today supporting our strike and our actions”, he was met with roaring applause.
ANF director of legal services Belinda Burke told the rally, “In my 23 years with the ANF nurses and midwives have never gone on strike. The fact that you’re here today shows how desperate the health system has become”.
McGowan and Sanderson have made much of an about face by the ANF, claiming that the union is not negotiating in good faith. However, former state secretary and now unelected chief executive Mark Olsen clearly lacked member support when he announced on 15 November that the union’s bargaining team had reached an in-principle agreement with the government on pay and conditions.
Within days, the deal had collapsed. Olsen was booed and heckled by nurses and midwives at a meeting at Fiona Stanley Hospital the same day, and again at the union’s annual general meeting on 16 November, for his betrayal of the nurses’ demands.
An internal poll of members between 18 and 22 November resulted in a resounding “no” vote, 84 percent rejecting the government’s pay offer. The offer included a $1,200 training allowance, payable only to nurses at the top of the level 1 and 2 pay bands, in addition to the baseline $3,120 per year offer (3 percent for most nurses), plus a one-off $3,000 “cost of living” payment being offered to all state public sector workers.
At the commencement of the poll, Reah announced that a one-day, statewide strike would take place within seven days if members rejected the government’s offer.
At the parliament rally, Ray noted that nurses’ real wages have fallen since 2017 and that the government’s latest offer would further cut real pay by “nearly 5 percent this year alone”.
He insisted that the ANF should continue to fight for the 10 percent claim adopted at a stop work meeting of more than 2,000 on 12 October, the largest mass meeting of nurses and midwives in WA in decades. Since that meeting, Reah has been calling on the government to deliver a 5 percent (below inflation) pay rise alongside the $3,000 “cost of living” payment.
“Ten percent is fair and any doubters should ask themselves, ‘Do we deserve a pay cut?’, because that is what is being offered”, Ray said, urging members to become involved in their union and to continue their struggle.
“In order to win this, we need a fighting union”, he said. “We need an organised and democratic union; we need workplace delegates [and] activist networks.”
Also key to nurses and midwives winning their demands will be support from workers in other unions, especially those in the public sector.
A lively Maritime Union contingent joined the nurses’ rally. However, public sector and healthcare unions other than the ANF, most of which have now signed up for the government’s below inflation offer, were absent. Workplace delegates and activists within these unions will need to build membership support for the nurses and take the fight up to their union leaders.
“This fight isn’t over today”, Ray said. “We need to keep fighting. We need to show the government we won’t accept a lousy deal ... We fight for ourselves, we fight for our patients, we fight for our carers and our community.”