NSW nurses strike again as health system chaos continues—but electing Labor not enough to fix it

Nurses and midwives across NSW joined a 24-hour strike yesterday, their fourth strike day in nine months. Several thousand members of the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association took to the streets in Sydney to continue their call for safe staffing ratios and pay.

“It’s now our fourth strike and we’re still being pushed around. We have been bullied, we’ve been fined, but we’ve stayed strong and we keep standing together,” the union’s general secretary, Shaye Candish, told the rally. The union again defied orders and the threat of fines from the Industrial Relations Commission to push ahead with the strike.

“We still can’t get proper staffing, proper breaks, proper resources. Our patients go without proper care,” she said.

Nurses and midwives have been demanding action all year from the Perrottet Liberal government to fix the broken health system.

Melissa Mansell, the president of the union’s Liverpool Hospital branch, explained how her experiences as a nurse during the pandemic have made her feel “inferior, neglected abused, and taken for granted”.

As a result of working in horror conditions in a COVID emergency ward with just two staff, she developed PTSD. “Since then I have had multiple panic attacks on the job and sleepless nights because similar [horror stories are] still happening now.”

Bianca Vergouw, an ICU nurse at Wollongong Hospital, said the crisis due to short-staffing was being felt even in ICUs, where nurses are forced to “prioritise who gets the care and what sort of care they get”.

The union has won “a commitment from the ALP to deliver ratios” in some areas, including emergency departments, intensive care, maternity wards and multipurpose services, Candish pointed out.

But this falls short of the union’s demands. “We’ve got to keep the pressure up,” she told the crowd. “We want more”. Paediatric departments, neo-natal intensive care units and mental health, among others, have been left out.

Promises

Labor has also made no promises on ending the real pay cuts and addressing the cost-of-living crisis for public sector workers, through delivering pay rises that keep pace with inflation.

Perrottet has imposed a hefty wage cut on nurses with a pay rise this year of just 2.53 per cent, with inflation heading for 8 per cent. This comes after a decade of wage rise caps that have held down pay.

Nurses and midwives in NSW are now the second worst paid in the country. Candish pointed out that the government has “saved itself $120,000 from each of you, each public sector nurse and midwife since this wage cap was introduced”.

The determination of the nurses and midwives to keep up the fight is welcome and necessary. But the focus on a long campaign across the public sector unions aimed at voting out the Liberal government at the state election in March next year has slowed momentum.

The Sydney strike rally was noticeably smaller than on previous strike days. The NSW Teachers Federation has already wound down strikes in favour of an electoral campaign to deliver a Labor state government.

We do need to see the end of Dominic Perrottet’s Liberal government. But the federal election this year has shown that we cannot simply rely on electing Labor to make the changes necessary.

Fixing the crisis in the public health system, and the public sector more broadly, means escalating the strikes and building a more powerful industrial campaign—not just for one day but for as long as necessary.

United public sector-wide strikes involving nurses, teachers, rail workers and public servants could shut down the state and cause the kind of political crisis that would force Perrottet to give in.

Shaye Candish told the rally, “Nurses and midwives are nothing if not determined. We will not go down without the fight of our lives.” That fight is going to have to continue whether it is Dominic Perrottet or Labor in power.

By Angus Dermody

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