A confusing part of the NZNO DHB MECA negotiations has been the pay equity claim. The negotiating team has recommended the deal and considers the pay equity claim as part of the reasoning for accepting the deal. These are separate issues. If people want significant change, HSWN believe the time is not tomorrow to bring this, the time is now.
Pay equity has brought amazing improvements to the pay for support workers in the aged-care sector. The Kristine Bartlett case brought pay increases across the aged-care sector — a private sector with multiple different collective agreements which is known to be a hostile anti-union environment to negotiate within. This was an extremely effective strategy in this context. Ongoing pay equity claims are great ways of overcoming these barriers, and there will be more wins through this process.
The NZNO DHB MECA on the other hand covers 27,000 members across the country and is solely public sector. Effectively, despite there being 20 DHBs, there is really only one employer — the government. Negotiating and bargaining for significant gains in this context is not the same as the aged-care sector or similarly diverse sectors (i.e. mental health community support workers). With such a centralised and consolidated group, a well organised mobilisation could leverage to achieve substantial pay and contractual improvements.
The opportunity is now. With New Zealand’s employment legislation, there are only two instances when industrial action can lawfully be taken. The first is during collective bargaining and the other is due to health and safety reasons. The legislation also controls the conditions of industrial action for essential services and especially the public health sector. The legislation takes into account the ethical conflict between the right to “do no harm” and the right of workers to withdraw their labour. Subsequently, any argument against industrial action fails to appreciate both the measured approach that must be taken and the ‘safety’ embedded in the process. But if safety and “do no harm” is paramount in this process — why is this not taken so seriously on a daily basis? In a chronically underfunded and under-resourced health system, health sector workers must consider the safety of themselves, their colleagues and above all, the people they are trying to help. The opportunity for industrial action is about bargaining power. It is an opportunity that is rarely afforded to make change.
This is the moment when members could be mobilised and unified towards genuine change. 27,000 people could demand better. A pay equity case, while potentially offering improvements to pay, offers no change to terms and conditions. Additionally, it gives the decisions to some committee, some selection of people who may not represent members and workers. It distances decision making. It takes power away from members. It offers no chance of industrial action if members do not agree with the settlement. This is a strategy that disempowers. Should workers accept this?
Lastly — the pay equity claim will look at equity across the sector, re-establishing the benchmark which has been created through the sexist operations of the capitalist system. But at the same time the NZNO DHB MECA is the benchmark across the health sector. The multitude of collective agreements that exist in the health sector use the DHB MECA as comparator. The terms and conditions won in these negotiations is an opportunity to rewrite the conditions and assert the value of healthcare workers. Why wait for a pay equity claim?
With all this in mind, health care workers across Aotearoa/New Zealand should be mobilising to win better terms, better pay and conditions. Why wait for a committee to decide on something tomorrow when the opportunity is here and now? The time is now.
Health Sector Workers Network