A Perilous Position
The members of the New Zealand Nurses Organisation working at the country's public hospitals and DHB provided services are in a perilous position since the union's leaders abruptly cancelled one of the two strike days last week. The strike which should have taken place tomorrow, was cancelled last week after the union leaders said it had received a better offer. The union sat on the offer for the weekend before revealing it to be much the same as the previous offer. There was no increase to the percentage of 3% offered as an annual increase, and there was still no backpay but instead a lump sum of $2000 for full time nurses, and proportionally less for part time nurses. The ultimate solution to the short staffing plaguing the hospitals was the same funding of another 500 nurse vacancies for hospital wards only (not DHB funded community nurses or clinics). According to the Nightingales for Fair Pay spokesperson Danni Wilkinson, this amounted to less than 10% of a nurse per ward. The DHBs already have the funds for hundreds of nurse positions but they are unable to fill them due to the national shortage of nurses. The other aspect to the latest offer was that the DHBs had taken the money allocated to improving the registered nurse rate specifically on step 5 and 6 and had redistributed the same money over all nursing categories (enrolled nurses and patient care assistants), and then delayed the introduction of the new rate by several months. On their member facebook page, angry NZNO members lambasted the decision of the union leaders to call off the strike and recommend this offer, threatening to vote no. The vote ends on Monday 9 July and the next strike date is set for 12 July and will only go ahead if a majority of NZNO members vote no.
The union bureaucracy is appearing to be increasingly unnerved at the prospect of their membership going on strike at all and so there are only a few likely scenarios that may unfold over the coming days. The most unlikely scenario is that members vote yes to the new offer and so there is no need for a strike. There is almost no chance at all of this happening. The other scenarios are all quite bleak for the membership - the first is that the union leaders, even after a no vote to the new offer, will invent another ruse to cancel the strike on 12 July. This is quite likely. Since members were only asked to vote yes or no to strikes on 5 July and 12 July, the union leaders would not be able to propose another strike unless they ran another strike ballot. The power to run a strike ballot is controlled centrally and the union leaders are very unlikely to call off a strike on 12 July and still run another strike ballot. This would leave the members in limbo and disempower them for a few weeks at which point the union leaders would announce that if no better deal was likely and that they were accepting the 3%.
The next likely scenario is that the union leaders strike a secret deal with the DHB leaders to allow the one day strike on the 12 July to go ahead but for there to be no improvement to the offer thereafter. The union leaders will then wash their hands of the membership after the strike, and send members emails stating that they warned the membership a strike would achieve nothing. This would pave the way for the DHB leaders to unilaterally implement a 3% increase. As chief negotiator Cee Payne set the stage for this possible scenario this week by saying in the NZ Herald, "The NZNO negotiation team has made a recommendation on this offer because they really do believe there is no additional funding that can be achieved by taking industrial action at this time". This is a classic Stalinist tactic that has seen many strikes derailed in the same way in the past. It is also a betrayal of the members democratic rights. The NZNO members have already voted to strike and they should be allowed to strike.
Following either of these scenarios, the union bureaucrats would wait a very short time for the dust to settle and then begin a backlash against dissidents in their own ranks, dismissing many union staff. At this point, many of the union delegates would already have quit their roles as delegates in disgust at the sellout of the members and so the union would be extremely weak which would allow the union bureaucrats to resume the work of striking poor deals for the members. There would be a high level of disillusionment amongst the members who would revert to not bothering to vote on wage offers which in turn would allow the union bureaucrats to say that the members were apathetic and that this apathy is the reason why the union is not strong.
The solution to these imminent problems is for the rank and file of NZNO to rise up and demand a new democratic governance structure where members have a direct say in how decisions of the union are made. The current DHB MECA negotiating team must be recalled and replaced with a democratic and accountable team made up of the locally elected union leaders from each DHB coming together as one force. To achieve this, NZNO members will need to organise across the country in support of their demands for internal union democracy.