History of Health Sector Resistance in Aotearoa

 — a Q&A with a DHB RN on the 2004 struggle.

Health Sector Workers Network are running a series where we talk with people from around the Health Sector in Aotearoa/New Zealand about their experience of resistance and struggle. This first Q&A is with a Nurse who works in a DHB who has chosen to remain anonymous. She was working in the health sector in 2004 when NZNO were last on the brink of possible strike action. A timely reflection on striking (or not striking) in DHBs.

We hear that you were around last time Nurses and health workers in the hospitals looked to take industrial action — can you tell us a little bit about this experience?

While it felt a bit nerve wracking at times I was one of several delegates who stood on the street and handed out flyers to people walking by, and engaging them in conversation if possible. I think this was 2004 and strike was notified, but withdrawn when a good offer was made.

What was the feeling at the time? What were some of the issues being fought for?

I was in a small DHB at the time,and there was solidarity in the feeling that we as a group were worth it. I think Fair Pay was the main theme at this time. The public seemed to be behind us, and supported us.

Did the industrial action work? Did nurses/health workers get a better deal? How so?

As above. The strike notice was issued, and the DHBs came back with a better offer.

Often a lot of nurses and health workers are concerned about leaving the ward or workplace due to issues around patient care being jeopardised — what are your thought about this in terms strike action?

It’s a last resort, and I would hope that if NZNO can somehow make a strong point to the DHB group that we deserve fair pay, equity, safe staffing, a decent term etc that strike won’t become necessary. We do have a duty of care so would need to provide some sort of base line care. However if it comes down to it, I’ll be out, and standing with a placard on the corner. We’ve worked with unsafe staffing and for too poor a pay deal for far too long. Acuity increases all the time, yet we’re expected to manage with less, to deliver quality safe care, and being nurses we attempt to do this. This is happening at the expense of our own mental and physical well being, and affecting work life balance, and our family life.

I have never ever seen such emotional distress in about forty years of nursing, as I have in the last few years, and especially the last twelve months. Nurses are arriving at work and crying at handover when they see their case load, crying during the shift, as they struggle with delivering care of a lesser standard than they desire, or missing episodes of care altogether. Yet others say they managed to hold it together until they got to their car, or to the sanctuary of their own home. We all talk about worrying about making mistakes and causing harm to our patients, and putting our practising certificates on the line. Many of us are looking outside of nursing for employment, not because we dislike nursing itself but because the conditions we work in have become intolerable.

People sometimes talk about the past with what seems like ‘rose tinted glasses’ — as though health workers in the past were always protesting for better pay, against privatisation, marching down main streets — what do you think about this idea?

My experience is that it goes in cycles. Thing become bad, nurses get fed up and protest, and then get a pay rise. Things are better for a while, then deteriorate again and so on. However, in all my years of nursing this is the worst I have experienced in terms of being over worked, unsafe, under valued, and in short feeling almost completely demoralised most of the time, and completely demoralised some of the time.

However I simply can not understand how we have become so invisible! It is deeply distressing to think of the conditions we work in, the fact our MECA is being negotiated and yet we are not telling the media how things are. That in fact patients are unsafe in our hospitals. We feel very let down by NZNO.

Do you have any advice for people struggling to win better conditions or to get organised today?

– Stand together

– Follow internal processes regarding elevating safety concerns Reportable Events etc

– Attend delegate meetings

– Attend Regional Council meetings to elevate concerns to BOD

– Write to MPs

– Talk to your friends and family

– Get them to go to the media

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