Matt McCarten: Junior doctors deserve support from CTU - not back-stabbing
5:00AM Sunday May 04, 2008
By Matt McCarten
There is a sacred principle among trade unionists: when a group of workers is on strike you support them to the hilt. To side with the boss is the most serious of all crimes.
Working-class history is full of epic struggles that led to better wages and conditions. Crossing a picket line banished the offender to lifetime alienation as a "scab" with whom no working person of good character would associate. This was so effective in stopping bosses from breaking strikes a law was passed making it an offence to use the word.
So last week I was gobsmacked to see the head of the trade union movement publicly attack the junior doctors' two-day strike and their union leadership. It's not as if CTU president Helen Kelly doesn't know any better - her parents were staunch unionists.
According to Kelly the impasse in negotiations between the doctors and the district health boards (DHBs) is the fault of the union. She essentially accused the doctors' negotiator, Deborah Powell, of having her own agenda and manipulating her membership. I've heard this frequently from bosses when there's an industrial scrap. But it's the first time I've heard it from our own side.
Does Kelly really believe the union's 2000-plus doctors unanimously went on strike because the union boss pulled the wool over their eyes? If that were true, you'd have to wonder what sort of judgment these doctors have when we trust them to save our lives.
Kelly says she hopes the strike "doesn't give unions a bad name" and the doctors' union is not a "modern union". This is because it focuses too much on getting better wages and conditions for its members and lacks professional advisers, "such as policy analysts, economists, lawyers and advocates". Its crimes include not attending talk-fests with Ministry of Health and DHB officials and other unions to "work towards a better health system".
She seems to think a modern union levies its members to employ "professional advisers" so they can have meetings with the ever-expanding health bureaucracy. Maybe the doctors are smarter than she thinks. I'm told that if all the DHB bureaucrats had to go into hospital there wouldn't be enough beds available. I'm sure you need a talk-fest to see what the real problem is.
The doctors' union has been in negotiations since its collective agreement expired last June. Next month all its members revert to individual contracts. Due to the nature of their profession, many move from hospital to hospital. Without a union contract they can't transfer their wages and conditions and will have to negotiate individually with their new DHB, meaning they will get screwed when they go to smaller DHBs.
There's a lot of intentional nonsense spun from the Government and the health bosses over what the doctors are paid, but it boils down to $23 an hour.
The union has said it wants a 10 per cent average increase over three years. The DHBs said 4.25 per cent, take it or leave it. What the media hasn't reported is that the doctors offered to accept the same percentage the DHBs offered senior doctors.
The bosses turned them down flat. There is no appeal process. What does the Health Minister David Cunliffe, who has sided with the bosses, and Kelly suggest the doctors do? Give in?
But it's not really about the money - the doctors are fighting for a sustainable public health system. More than 200 resident doctors have left for overseas jobs since the negotiations reached a stalemate in December.
In Australia they can command salaries of three times what they get here. If the doctors don't win we should accept that our medical schools are here to train doctors for Australia and we will have to replace them with any doctors we can steal from developing countries.
Because of the hundreds of doctor vacancies, the doctors know that if they resign from the public system they are immediately contracted back as locums doing the same job for three times their hourly rate. That's $3000 for a 40-hour week with no night shift. According to the doctors the average locum gets $200,000 a year and does fewer hours than them. Therefore it's no surprise that one in three resident doctors has done exactly that.
Ninety per cent of all health system locums are former employees or employees on leave. What bureaucratic talk-fest thought that criminal nonsense up?
The doctors' union says it costs the taxpayer $100 million for locums. They say the $300-$500 an hour paid to locums during the strike, for the jobs that pay them $23 an hour, is more than their entire wage demand.
So instead of attacking the union, the president of the CTU should be demanding that Cunliffe stop lining up with the hospital bosses and make sure the doctors get a decent salary.
Otherwise, the doctors' accusation that the CTU president seems more interested in looking after her mates in the Government than workers does seem to have a ring of truth to it.