Nurse Joy?

Nurse Joy?

After a day-long strike and nearly a year of negotiations, New Zealand Nurses Organisation has accepted the latest pay offer from their DHB employers, ending the threat of further strikes. Callum Doyle went to the Duendin protest to find out what it means and why it was necessary in the first place. 

On Tuesday the 15th of July, if you were walking anywhere near the hospital, slightly hungover from a Monday night drinks sesh that totally isn’t indicative of early alcoholism, you may have heard a lot of yelling and honking. No, it wasn’t the usual case of some dipshit pulling out in front of another dipshit, who then proceeded to punish his dipshittery by blasting his horn for everyone else. No, this honking was in support of the nurses of Dunedin, who were striking alongside 30,000 nurses nationwide for better treatment and pay.

The actual protest was pretty great, although it was terrifying being surrounded by a couple hundred women that all reminded me of my mum and not even in a fun Freudian way. The general mood was upbeat, if annoyed and frustrated at the fact that it was even necessary. Everyone I saw was in good spirits, even the lads™ who mooned us as they drove past. Everyone I spoke to talked mostly about two things, safe staffing, and fair wages. 

“We’re working on a lot of overtime to run the hospital,” said one protestor, “also if you’re trying to recruit people into nursing you have to have a fair wage or they’ll go overseas.” 

But that lack of staff hasn’t just taken a toll on the nurses themselves, it’s affected the patients who are in desperate need of the best care they can possibly get. Nurses aren’t just pissed off because they work long hours, that’s always been the case. When I asked one nurse why exactly we needed more nurses, instead of just paying them better, she said, “you have one nurse to six patients. You cannot get everything done, mistakes are made, medication gets missed and basic care doesn’t happen”.  

As one lovely nurse put it, “it’s a shit fight and it’s every day”. But the loudest chant I heard and what all the nurses seemed to want to emphasise on the day was “safe staffing saves lives”. Because nurses will work themselves to death, then get out of their coffin and cover another shift, because they have to for the patients. They know that if they don’t, people will suffer. But it’s gotten to the point where they physically cannot, and patients are suffering regardless, so they’ve finally had to speak up about it. It was even pointed out to me by some of the nurses that, to ensure the safety of the patients in the hospital, “there are more nurses doing life preserving services today than there are normally. There’s not enough nurses for everyday nursing but they’ve got enough to cover emergency services”. 

But if they’re so fed up with it, why hasn’t anything happened before now, why did they have to strike? Well the first thing to remember is that Labour is back in power which means the commies finally won we’ve got a left wing government in power again, which is pro-labour (if ya know, being the LABOUR party didn’t give it away). But nurses have been unhappy with their pay for a long time now. Currently a senior nurse with 30 years of experience makes $69,755 which is ok, but they argue it severely undervalues the work nurses go into, as well as the training they receive (and pay for).

Talks began earlier this year, attempting to avoid any striking action as no one wants that, especially the nurses. While the NZNO thought the offer was fine, nurses voted against it, and so the strike went through. 

But why reject the offer? Senior nurses could earn up to $92,000 according to the government, as well as a $2000 flat payment. But that doesn’t really get at the heart of the issue. Yes, the nurses wanted more money and their job to be valued as it should be. But their biggest concern was always for safer staffing and coverage for patients so that the patients are affected. As Lorraine Lobb, an organiser for NZNO, put it, “This was around the fact it achieved some of the pay but not safe staffing, it also wasn’t equal across all levels/scopes of practice”.

There’s also a big caveat with the whole “$92000” the government and your National supporting dad keep trotting out. According to one nurse, “the media have made out we can earn over $92,000 but that means shift work, including night duties”. Which isn’t possible if you have annoying things like family, children or any other kind of responsibilities.  

As well as this inflation of what nurses would make, the offer didn’t mention anything about encouraging the decision to become a nurse, aside from small pay offers for registered nurses, and the promise that maybe five years down the line you might be making something close to a liveable wage.

On August 7, the nurses agreed to the fifth and final offer that was made. So that’s good right? Well your grandad is probably raving about commie nurses so there’s one good outcome. There’s also the fact that that here has at last been greater commitment to ensure safer staffing. 

The NZNO said that an “exceptionally high” portion of their membership voted on whether to accept the offer, and a “significant majority” voted in favour.

As one nurse (who happens to be my mum) put it, “There is now a clear plan to monitor how vacancies get addressed and covered while a role is vacant”. 

But the pay increase hasn’t changed at all, meaning no progress there. It’s not the landmark decision anyone was hoping for, but hey at least we’ve gotten somewhere. Thankfully the government’s response to this has at least shown they’re willing to negotiate with workers, which is a sign we could see more change on the way, as other areas of labour are beginning to talk about striking and pushing for better pay, such as the teachers strike currently planned for the 15th of August. 

Labour have promised to fix the issues they say were caused and amplified by a National government that did nothing to address the situation. As David Clark, Minister of Health, put it, “I think everyone agrees nurses should be paid more than they are now, but it takes more than one pay round to address nine years of neglect”.

So hopefully everyone who reads this realises this applies to them and helps them out, no matter who you are. Get a nice concussion coming home from a party picking a fight with a particularly speedy tree? Now you’ll be looked after by fresh and ready nurses, not ones who have had to spend ten straight hours working. Currently in health sci and wanting to be a doctor one day? Well first off hope you’re ready to be a commerce student next year, but if you do make it you’ll have enough nurses to actually get shit done. The strike didn’t solve everything and there’s still a whole lot to fix. But it’s a start, and the BA students can keep their guillotines in the closet… for now.

This article first appeared in Issue 19, 2018.
Posted 8:12pm Thursday 9th August 2018 by Callum Doyle.