Dedication doesn’t pay the rent – The 1986 Victorian Nurses Strike


by Liz Ross

First published in Hecate as “Sisters are doing it for themselves…and us”, Vol 13, No 1 1987. Reprinted as a pamphlet by Socialist Action September 1987.



1986 Nurses Cover

Nurses are often seen as the archetypal ‘hand-maidens’ of men. But if there was any one event that threw off this image once and for all, it was the Victorian nurses’ strike of 1986. Not only was the nurses’ dispute important for nurses, it is a valuable lesson for all women workers and those who write about them. All too often, the focus is on women workers’ passivity, their super-exploitation and the problems they face in breaking through their conditioning.

While it is obviously important not to dismiss these difficulties and problems, this approach focusses too much on women’s weaknesses. What it fails to take account of it is that, when they become involved in struggle, women can quickly break out of this passivity.

It ignores the fact that throughout history (especially since the rise of capitalism) women have often played leading roles in massive social upheavals; and that once they break out of the ideology and bonds of femininity, their struggle can take on a dynamic above and beyond similar struggles by men.

Many women sympathetic to socialism worry about how to ensure that women are not left on the sidelines of any socialist revolution. The nurses’ strike had an impact on everybody’s perception of women workers. It certainly gave the lead to other workers in the fight against Labor’s policies and cuts, as many male workers acknowledged.

The nurses’ strike provides an example of why socialists say the key to women’s participation in building a new socialist society lies not in keeping a watchful eye on men, but in building on struggles. It is through struggles such as nurses’ strike that women learn how to become leaders of the revolutionary movement.

“For the first time thousands of nurses here are finding that they do have power, that they can change their own lives and that’s what I find really exciting about this strike.”[1]

These were the words one nurse used to describe the Victorian nurses’ 50-day strike. And it wasn’t just the nurses who were inspired. Workers wrote into the local newspapers, rang the union in support; at workplaces all over the state money was collected and many workers wanted to take action. As one crane driver from a South Yarra building site said: “It’s exciting, this is what we should have done over the BLF.” He went on to talk about the strike and how he and his workmates were supporting the nurses with collections and site meetings.

With a militancy matched by few other trade unions in these days of ‘consensus’, Victorian nurses stayed out until they won. The determination stemmed from long-held frustration, stress and anger over the alarming deterioration in the hospital and community health services.

In Victoria, hospital waiting lists reached 27,000 before the strike (they’re now about 34,000) and the Cain government had cut the health budget, in real terms, each year since 1982/1983. The toll on nurses was disastrous: they topped last year’s workers’ compensation claims. 10,000 of them left nursing in the year to October 1985 and a further 8000 did not renew their practising certificates. The current shortfall for the state is about 14,000 nurses.

Nurses’ militancy stemmed from two different kinds of experiences in the past in trying to change the situation. The first was of working within the system, taking part in government reviews, lobbying and having high level meetings with the Health Minister – and getting nowhere fast. The second, over the past ten years particularly, was of going outside the system, taking direct action.

A look at history

Beginning as early as April 1975, 4000 angry nurses stormed the Victorian parliament. The issues were staffing and pay. They marched singing, “We shall not be moved” and carrying placards saying “Unite and Fight” and “Dedication doesn’t pay the rent”. Then from 1977 to 1979, nurses in New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland marched, picketed and put on bans over staffing and bed closures. The action died down during 1980/1981, but was stepped up again in 1982/1983 with more strikes, bans and rallies, mostly in NSW. Most of the action was in response to State government attempts to cut back on health services by closing beds and holding down wages and conditions. In Sydney in 1982, nurses’ action stopped the closure of some city hospitals. In their rallies against further closures, city workers, including BLF (Builders Labourers Federation) members[2], joined in in support. And then, on 19 November 1983, NSW nurses went out on a total strike. One of them commented:

“Sydney Hospital was ready to go out in April 1982. Since then there’s been 18 months of discussion. The only way to prove anything to this geezer up in Parliament House is to withdraw our labour.”[3]

NSW and Queensland nurses took action because their two unions, the NSW Nurses Association and the Queensland Nurses Association (both splits from the Royal Australian Nurses Federation – RANF[4]), had no clauses banning strikes. In the other states the situation was quieter because the union, the RANF, still had a no-strike clause in its constitution. This was a relic of its earlier days when it was dominated by the matrons.[5] During the Depression they had taken action like petition the government for a 25% wage cut (and winning it) and continually lobbying for longer shift hours!

By 1982, Victorian nurses, fed up with this shackle on militant action, decided to get rid of the clause. While the RANF was standing still and nurses’ wages and conditions were deteriorating, the Hospital Employees Federation (HEF) was taking action and winning wage rises for its nursing members. Nurses began to switch their allegiance to the HEF. One placard at the time summed up the situation: “RANF just play the game, while the HEF strike and reap the gain.” It took until 1984 for the no-strike clause to be dumped, but by then the decision was overwhelming.

1984 marked more strike action in NSW over a wages and hours claim, as the State government tried to trade off cuts in wages and conditions for a 38-hour week. And in July 1984 Victorian nurses, faced with yet another cut in the Health Budget, fought the government. The RANF explained: “The 1.5% cuts are not the whole problem, they are the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Bans on non-nursing duties were put on and the government finally responded with an offer for 300 extra non-nursing staff. But there was a catch; the money to pay their wages was to come from nursing funds, so there would be an effective cut in nursing staff. Backed by the HEF, the RANF kept the bans on and the government backed down and unconditionally offered 700 non-nursing staff by June 1985.

The NSW nurses were still fighting the Wran Labor government over their 38-hour week. They finally won in May 1986, but not without some determined action. For Victorian nurses, 1985 culminated with their first state-wide strike.

Coupled with the cuts in health spending and inevitable staff shortages, there were some other changes in nursing. The introduction of new technology actually meant that more staff were required to run the newly-created, highly specialised nursing units. Another consequence was patients spending shorter time in hospital and, with a higher turnover of patients, there was more work in admission and discharge procedures. The higher turnover also create more stress in nurse-patient relations with more people to relate to and less time to do it in. Nurses’ wages are also subject to the general falls in real wages under the Accord.[6] Without doubt it was an explosive situation. But the government, as before, relied on nurses’ dedication and did not heed the changing times.

By September 1985, the nurses had had enough. Still led by the old guard, the response began slowly. A night-time mass meeting, attended by 1700 members, was held on September 23. A log of claims for wage rises and improved conditions was adopted. Bans on wearing uniform and use of agency staff were to be in force from September 30. In the second week of October, nurses were to begin to implement the RANF (and award) staff-patient ratio. A stopwork meeting was planned, but not until mid-October. However, hospitals were encouraged to hold their own stopwork meetings to discuss implementing the bans. The most important indication from the nurses that this time they meant business, was the narrow defeat of a motion calling for immediate rolling strikes.

David White, the Health Minister, responded on September 30 with an offer on wages and conditions. The proposed wage rise was to be phased in over three years and was well below what the nurses wanted. There was also the added rider – sign a three-year no-strike clause and increase productivity. The union rejected the offer and kept up the pressure.

After the nurses began working to the RANF staff-patient ratio from October 7, White retaliated by directing management at the Alfred Hospital to scab. Management complied and much to the government’s fury, nurses at the hospital staged an immediate 24-hour walkout. Steve Crabb, Industrial Relations Minister, fumed:

“It’s outrageous. I’ve never had a strike pulled on me in the middle of negotiations.”[7]

But the nurses were even angrier and on October 11, they agreed to an indefinite strike from the following Thursday (October 17). After voting for the strike, thousands of nurses took to the streets and rallied outside White’s office. RANF Secretary Barbara Carson arned:

“I think the government has been indifferent to the RANF and the nurses have said, ‘Here’s what we feel about that’.”[8]

Negotiations between the government and the RANF continued, but they got no further so, from October 17, nurses across the state walked out leaving skeleton staffing only in the hospitals. Here’s how one writer described the strike:

“When it started on October 17, there were amazing sights all over Melbourne. Nurses noisily picketed hospitals, handed out leaflets to passers-by, collected money and above all expressed their determination to stay out until they won. The general feeling was that it was now or never.

“For most of them, this was the first time they had been on strike. The media said that they were ‘industrially naive’. But it was quite the contrary.

“Wendy, a student nurse at the Royal Melbourne Hospital explained: ‘Nurses’ conditions were so bad because people haven’t fought to change them. But now nurses have change, in the strike they’re learning a lot about government tactics and union power.’ David White and the media used all the traditional methods to attack the nurses. They claimed patients would die and conducted a misinformation campaign about rejected offers. There were threats about holding up the national wage case. But the nurses were not intimidated.

“ ‘Patients’ lives ere endangered before all of this. There was no proper care because of lack of staff and supervision’, said another Royal Melbourne student. A placard: ‘Overworked nurses: Under cared-for patients’, said it all.”[9]

This time the officials of the HEF did not back the strike. However, rank and file workers at many hospitals were openly supportive. HEF members at Prince Henry’s Hospital met and voted not to cross picket lines. Unfortunately the nurses didn’t set them up, precisely for that reason. Janey Stone continued:

“The strike finally ended after five days with only a partial victory. The government’s offer on staffing ratios was vague but they did agree to cooperate with the RANF on admissions and discharges. But lower level nurses will get no increases at this stage – they will have to wait for arbitration.

“A number of nurses at the mass meeting argued over what some called a sell-out. Quite rightly they did not share the officials’ confidence in ‘neutral umpires’.

“But most importantly, nurses have learned to strike. They will have to use this knowledge as conditions continue to deteriorate. Because as a staff nurse at Peter McCallum Hospital said, ‘The health system is one of the million things that are decaying at the moment. And Labor has got to a pitiful state. This is going to radicalise nurses across the country. There can’t be an end until we get better conditions’.”

And how right she was!

1986: Build-up to confrontation

The beginning of 1986 was quiet, but there were a few rumblings. In February Traralgon Hospital nurses went out on strike over staff shortages, but were sold out by the combined efforts of the RANF and Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC) leadership. In an ill-thought out measure, the Cain government took steps to recruit hundreds of English and Irish nurses at a cost of $6m. RANF fears that this would mean that the government would not tackle such issues as pay, childcare, car parking and security were swept aside by White. But then when the government did delay, the union decided to take action over the overseas recruitment. Bans were put on taking nurses from England and the government was presented with a list of demands about their employment.

In a further attempt to paper over the growing cracks in the system, the government set up working parties at two of the worst affected hospitals, Royal Melbourne and the Alfred, to recommend ways of improving working conditions. But the real issues, staffing and wages, could not be resolved by individual hospitals and so the proposed changes were bound to have little or no impact. One newspaper report later in the year summed up the situation:

“The message in most public hospital annual reports is the same: 1985-86 was a disaster in terms of the number of patients treated, industrial relations, staff morale and finances. The reports…directly or indirectly express anger at the State Government’s health priorities, detail the effects of bed closures, spell out the cuts forced on services.”[10]

Nurses, however, were still pinning their hopes on the State Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) hearings on wages and career structures, which had resulted from their industrial action in October 1985. And on 20 June 1986, they apparently got what they wanted – wage rises through a changed nursing career structure. There were, however, two immediate problems. Firstly the bulk of nurses, trainee and first year graduate nurses, would get nothing. Secondly, White seemed to be shifting his position on backdating. The government and the IRC thought that the RANF “would be obliged to accept such a generous decision even though its more junior members got nothing out of it.”[11] But nurses and their newly elected militant leader, Irene Bolger, thought differently.

Within five days of the decision being handed down, the union and the government were on a collision course. The issue was backdating pay rises. The private hospitals were refusing to pay up, so RANF members across the state put bans on. White threatened not to backdate state-employed nurses’ pay unless they stopped their campaign. But Irene Bolger refused to back down. “I can’t give any commitment which would be selling my members down the drain,” she said.

With RANF threats to strike and members keeping the bans pressure on, the government backed down by the end of the month. But three days into July, the RANF and government were back in the IRC over differences in reclassifications and qualification allowances. Under the June agreement, the RANF and hospitals had to make submissions to the Health Department outlining their proposals for the coverage of each of the new grades. It became clear at this stage that the government intended placing most nurses in the lowest grades. One of the picketers at Preston and Northcote Hospital (PANCH) who had 16 years experience, three certificates and was in the process of finishing a university degree, suddenly found herself classed at the lowest Grade One level. And her story was repeated across the state.

The second problem was with the qualification allowances. Even before the June agreement was reached, RANF organiser John Kotsifas was warning that the government intended cutting out the qualification allowance. (This is the extra payments made to nurses for the skills gained for each of their special training certificates. Almost every Australian worker, no matter what the industry, has won these payments.) The government and Health Department continued to deny this but, as soon as the June agreement was made, qualification allowances were cut out at a number of hospitals. This meant that many nurses had their wages cut and some were demoted into the bargain! So, within days of lifting the bans on elective surgery, nurses at four major hospitals had reimposed them. By the end of July bans were on in six hospitals and there was talk again of strike action. Irene Bolger warned that nurses were increasingly frustrated about the delays.

And then the IRC dropped its bombshell. On August 7 it formally abolished the qualification allowances. As one organiser put it: “We had put in for a wage rise and we got a wage cut.”

The RANF response to this last insult was somewhat sluggish. A stopwork meeting was called for August 14, where ‘all sorts of options’ were to be considered. White retaliated to threats of strike action by saying that the RANF would be “taking on the mantle of the BLF” and published figures that purported to show that no nurse would lose money. But members knew differently. In fact one hospital management had even backdated the cuts to January 1 and was demanding repayment.

The stopwork meeting on August 14 was angry, but still the nurses held back on strike action. Bans on elective admissions and wearing uniforms, operative from August 20 were still the strategy. The meeting did endorse a log of claims, which included pay rises for junior nurses. Two hospitals, the Alfred and Austin, put on additional bans on overseas recruits. The bans were then delayed another five days to enable talks between the parties to take place, but, when these broke down, the bans were implemented immediately. The tension was rising, newspaper editorials thundered that nurses could not be allowed the right to decide on patient admissions and finally, management decided to move. They began standing nurses down, despite the fact that there was no stand down clause in the nurses’ award. The IRC threatened not to pass on the 2.3 percent national wage rise while the nurses were taking industrial action.

The nurses kept the bans on and by August 29 seventy-eight nurses had been stood down. However, they did not just meekly accept the stand-downs. Where they could they kept working, or took management on. A report on the situation at some of the hospitals went like this:

“At the Royal Eye and Ear Hospital many called in sick the day after a union delegate was stood down. Three wards were closed and management staff were forced to run others.

At Leongatha nurses took a tea break following a stand down and did not return until the manager reconsidered his decision.

At the Austin Hospital, three men from management attempted to stand over nurses. But in the first ward they entered, RANF members formed a human barricade around a colleague who had been targeted for a stand down.

The following day, at a stopwork meeting called on 15 minutes notice, 70 nurses unanimously passed a motion of no-confidence in management. The angriest reaction has come from St Vincent’s where 150 nurses have resigned in response to 8 stand-downs.”[12]

Two weeks after putting the bans on, another stopwork meeting was held. 3,500 nurses resolved to maintain the bans until the employers agreed to their claims. The motion also demanded immediate reinstatement of all stood down nurses without loss of pay or privileges. Motions calling for White’s resignation, calling on nurses to resign en masse and for 24 and 48 hour strikes were put, but defeated. Again, despite all the employers’ provocation, the nurses weren’t ready to go all out and take strike action. However, after the mass meeting, nurses at eight metropolitan hospitals began their own discussions of the mass resignation tactic.

In the face of the nurses’ determination, the government and the IRC backed off and agreed to pay nurses who had been stood down. The union leadership then recommended lifting the bans at the next mass meeting (September 5) and negotiations with the government resumed. The talks dragged on through September and October, finally collapsing on October 24. White and the Health Department were determined that most staff would be downgraded, to contain the wages bill. The RANF was just as determined that its members would win wage rises.

The Strike Begins

Staying within the system had to come to an end. 5000 angry and militant nurses thronged to the October 31 stopwork and overwhelmingly endorsed a rank and file motion to go out indefinitely. Critical care units were still staffed and all wards had a skeleton staff. A nurse from PANCH said: “We had to do something, the government just keeps breaking promises.”[13] Calls for a total walkout were defeated, but nurses reinforced their message with a noisy march through the city.

The next day, November 1, the strike started in earnest. Most metropolitan hospitals were picketed although, for the first few days, no goods were stopped. Public support was tremendous. On the picket lines nurses met many well wishers. Encouragement to “toot in support” resulted in continuous honking outside the hospitals. Food, firewood and money poured in, and letters and telegrams backing the RANF overloaded Australia Post’s deliveries to the RANF headquarters in St Kilda. Workplace meetings and collections took place across the state and interstate. CES workers refused to post nursing vacancies on their boards.[14] Support came from blue and white collar unions, from the BLF to the clerks, as well as many rank and file HEF members.

And the strike itself, while not completely in the hands of the rank and file, was often effectively run by the militants. Involvement of rank and file workers means that the strike tactics are planned by people who are taking the action. It also reinforces the militants’ resolve. The strike committee met daily at the RANF offices to plan action and go over the previous day’s events. To ensure that members and other workers got the fact regularly, the union ran a programme on Community Radio 3CR and put out a daily strike bulletin. Morale and solidarity were maintained by running regular picket line barbeques and sporting competitions, as well as fundraisers and an occasional champagne breakfast. Groups of nurses toured the country regions every day, building support and keeping country members informed. The RANF representative at Wimmera Base Hospital commented, “I’ve never seen nurses so united and strong.”[15] Nicola, a first year graduate at Western General Hospital, explained what happened earlier in the dispute:

“Two months ago we decided on mass resignations. Irene thought it wasn’t a particularly good strategy. But we did it anyway. After we went to her she said she’d support us 100%.”[16]

As a result of this commitment to carrying out decisions of the rank and file by the leadership, Irene Bolger got standing ovations at most of the mass meetings. And for her it was the solidarity of the nurses, their support and unity, that kept her going.

Of course the strike wasn’t all a bed of roses. Nurses faced many personal traumas. Many cried as they walked out and had nightmares afterwards. Often when they were on the picket line they’d slip in the back way to visit patients they’d nursed. One charge sister commented: “It’s been horrible for the past twelve months, but I think unity has come out of it.”[17] The government refused to budge for weeks. Cain threatened the union with everything from manslaughter charges to deregistration and the Essential Services Act.

Behind all this bluster and intimidation, the Australian Labor Party’s [ALP, then in government] main concern was to maintain the constraints of Arbitration and the Accord’s centralised wage fixing. Janey Stone commented:

“Health Minister David White was not primarily afraid of the financial cost of an RANF victory, as his ultimate peace offer showed.

It was the political cost of any agreement reached by collective bargaining directly between a striking union and the government as employer that impelled him to be so intransigent.

The issue became central once it became obvious the strike was going to last for more than a week or two.”[18]

Ken Howard, then a federal RANF industrial officer said:

“A breakthrough by the nurses, or rather a breakout from the straitjacket of the arbitration system and the Accord would have had tremendous significance for all workers.”[19]

As the government wouldn’t negotiate, nurses started to escalate the action. From November 5, they walked out of all but critical care wards, hospital by hospital. Pickets began to stop non-essential supplies to the wards and were backed by Transport Workers Union (TWU) drivers. Cain responded by publicly announcing the police would be used to break the pickets.

While relations between the RANF and HEF at some hospitals were good, with strong rank and file support, the HEF leadership publicly sided with the government. Secretary Les Butler instructed his members to cross picket lines. At hospitals like the Royal Melbourne most of the members did, but at Prince Henry’s, Queen Victoria and Western General, among others, they refused. HEF meetings at Prince Henry’s agreed not to touch any goods brought in by scabs and threatened a total walkout if police were used. They passed motions supporting the nurses’ strike one hundred per cent. If anything, according to Les Taylor, the HEF chief shop steward, the strike brought the two unions even closer at this hospital.

The Trades Hall Council leadership played as despicable a role as the HEF officials. Peter Marsh, the secretary, began by claiming that he didn’t want to take responsibility for assisting the strike because it affected the health industry. That didn’t stop him from trying the very next day to force the RANF to hand over the dispute to Trades Hall. He patronisingly told the nurses that they needed help because they could no longer handle the dispute. Louise Ajani from Western General retorted: “…basically we don’t think Trades Hall are acting in our interests”.[20] Fifteen hundred strikes personally delivered that message to Trades Hall at a rally on November 7. Chanting “No Trades Hall Interference”, a contingent of several hundred stormed a health unions’ meeting and saw to it that delegates voted against the intervention and supported the nurses. By November 19, forty hospitals were hit by the strike and building unions were threatening to impose bans. The IRC finally backed down from its refusal to arbitrate while the nurses were still out and called private talks with all parties on November 21.

It was to no avail. The government still believed the nurses would go back. And they hoped intervention by the peak union body, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), would put them in their place. The RANF Federal Council rejected ACTU control, although talks continued between the two organisations. The ACTU, while supporting the nurses’ claims ‘in principle’, tried its best to undermine their position. ACTU President Simon Crean personally attacked the union for its action on several occasions. He accused them of “demanding more than was justified” and told them they should go back. Irene Bolger hit back with a blunt: “Simon Crean should keep his mouth shut. He doesn’t know what is going on.”[21]

On December 8, the RANF again escalated the action. Nurses began walking out of critical care wards. This latest move was based partly on nurses’ own demands and a similar experience in Canada which had brought the government to the negotiating table in seven minutes. However it didn’t work out like that in Victoria, although the nurses did eventually win. Unlike in Canada, the Victorian walkout didn’t involve all hospitals. Even by this stage, 50 percent of hospital beds were still available, mostly through the private hospital system. And it was here that an important weakness developed in the dispute.

Fresh from the daily picket line reps’ meeting, the member at PANCH announced the walkout. But when asked what nurses were going to do if the government didn’t responds, she replied, “Not work? It has to work.” Having pulled out their trump card they had no strategy to continue building the strike if there was a setback.

And the government did refuse to negotiate, even after nurses left critical care wards. In fact, three days later, White escalated the dispute on the government’s behalf by announcing that one-year trained State Enrolled Nurses (SENs) would be instructed to do the nurses’ work.[22] Necessary legislation would be rushed through parliament. In this he was assisted by the leadership of the Australian Medical Association (AMA – the doctors union) and the HEF. Les Butler of the HEF said he had no objection to his members doing work usually carried out by RANF members. He topped this off by adding: “AS far as we are concerned it should have been done yesterday.”[23]

However, this time the government had finally overstepped the mark. The RANF called national meetings to plan action over the use of SENs, with support likely from the more militant NSW and Queensland Nurses’ Associations. It is also probable that Butler would have been faced with widespread refusal by SENs to scab, led by hospitals like Prince Henry’s. Queen Victoria HEF members had already openly refused to obey union directives on the picket line and there was flak from the HEF in other states. In the ACT, for example, the HEF had joined forces with the RANF over staffing and wage demands and had publicly supported the Victorian RANF from the beginning. An important, but little publicised factor was that SENs, in a reversal of previous trends, had begun to leave the HEF and join the RANF. They were actually out on strike themselves.

While the Cain ministry did not publicly back down on the SEN threat until December 17, the only real weapon the government now had was the ACTU. With the IRC opening up a loophole for the ACTU intervention, the government was able to manoeuvre itself out of its dead-end position. So now it was up to the ACTU to deliver the goods. After lengthy discussions, the RANF and ACTU finally came to an agreement on a joint case to put to the IRC on December 15. The RANF had made some concessions, but the ACTU agreed to all the RANF’s major claims. Or at least that’s what they told the union. But when presenting the case to the Commission, the ACTU’s Jenny Acton started backtracking. When Irene Bolger tried to stop her, she accused the RANF of being “unable to understand the difference between substantial and total agreement”. But RANF members and their leadership understood the ACTU’s treachery only too well. Irene Bolger reported to that afternoon’s stopwork: “There is nothing joint about the proposal – it is now just the ACTU proposal. I think we have been sold out.”[24] The nurses stayed out and the ACTU got the message. They changed their position to one of total agreement with the RANF.

Two days before the strike ended, White publicly withdrew the threat of using SENs. The RANF sent its members back to the critical care wards. But still the government wouldn’t agree to the RANF-ACTU package. Irene Bolger held firm:

“It’s not enough for an agreement in principle because we don’t trust him [David White] and our members don’t trust him. He needs to agree to the whole package.”[25]

Finally on December 19, White, on behalf of the Cain government, agreed to the “whole package” and the nurses went back. A week later The Australian said of the nurses’ victory:

“Despite all the public posturing…the nurses did prove themselves strong enough industrially to make significant wage gains. It took 5 weeks of strike action, but the Government did finally agree its $54.7m allocation under the June award was insufficient.”[26]

Some Issues from the Strike

As I said at the beginning, the nurses’ strike wasn’t just an inspiration for nurses, it was important for all workers. After a series of setbacks in the BLF, Robe River, Mudginberri and SEQEB struggles, the nurses’ victory set out some lessons on how workers can win, even against a very determined employer.[27] The dispute raised a number of issues for all Australian workers faced with Labor government attacks and an increasingly dominating ACTU.

Having come to power on the joint ALP-ACTU Accord, the Hawke government set about implementing the real promises of the Accord.[28] As a close reading of the agreement reveals, the Accord’s promises were to the bosses – that increased profitability would be brought about by cuts in workers’ wages and conditions and government assistance would be redirected from welfare to business.

As the Hawke government cut back on public spending, it pressured the State governments to do likewise. Not that most of them needed much encouragement. In their eagerness to attract business to Victoria, the Cain government has found the money to give to companies by slashing spending on government services like health, transport and education. Health spending has been cut in real terms every year since 1982/1983. As a building worker from the big Riverside Quay site commented: “Cain spent $40m to destroy the BLF. He should have used it to fix up the hospital system.”[29] In 1987 the Victorian government was demanding a cut in spending of $34.8m. Even the hospital directors were complaining that these cuts could mean that many hospitals wouldn’t have enough even to maintain existing services.

The government’s answer, apart from attempting to sabotage the nurses’ wage rises, was to encourage the development of private health centres. In other words, their solution to cuts in public services is to encourage user-pays private services.

The plan for the Victorian health system would seem to be as follows. Firstly a major rationalisation of hospital-based services. This involves setting up major hospitals in the west and south-east and, in the process, closing down some of the centrally located hospitals, freeing up some prime real estate.[30] No-one would disagree that the outer suburbs, especially the west, need hospitals; but the city based hospitals are still essential where they are. One private hospital owner actually talked about putting in a bid for the Prince Henry’s site because of its ideal location.

Rationalisation means a cut in total bed numbers. The shortfall is to be made up by the private hospital system, which, despite the long waiting lists for public health care, is still vastly under-utilised. All this will mean that people will have to pay more for health care, either through more expensive health cover or higher costs of treatment, or else be relegated to the bottom of extremely long waiting lists.

The second part of their plan involves nursing staff. And here it seems they want to encourage the American model. At the top will be tertiary trained nurses or nurse consultants; fewer of them and hired on private contracts. Unionisation is discouraged by this model, which creates an elitist grouping, similar to doctors. Next there would be the lower paid, less trained nurses, halfway between today’s trainee nurses and SENs. Then there would be the even lower paid and more numerous group of aides, with little training, doing the dirtiest, least rewarding tasks. The nurses’ alternative would be more training for SENs and more bedside nursing all the way through the career structure.

This restructuring of nursing would fragment the recently built unity, break union organisation and significantly reduce the government’s wages bill. As nurses make up about 60 percent of current hospital staff, this is an important factor.

So when the nurses were forced to take on their employers, the State Government, they faced a determination they had to match. The ALP’s determination was backed by its planned cutback in the public health system, encouragement of a privatised service and long-term plans for changing the hospital workforce and lowering costs.

There was strong speculation from informed participants that the government’s resoluteness was reinforced by some sort of promise of non-interference from the HEF. A deal made along the following lines would do much to explain the government’s intransigence and the HEF leadership’s comments. In exchange for future HEF coverage for the new categories of lower paid nurses, the HEF would agree not to support the nurses, including crossing picket lines. During the nurses’ dispute, the IRC handed down a $20 wage rise to SENs, which could easily have been part of negotiations between the HEF and ALP. Given the current leadership’s fears that the HEF would be next in line for deregistration after the BLF, it is possible some agreement was reached on this issue too.

The Cain government’s intransigence is typical of the sort of determined employer that public sector workers increasingly have to face. But the nurses’ struggle also showed them how to win. And other government employees weren’t slow to get the message either. As nurses went out, workers at Northcote Social Security [now Centrelink] commented that this was the sort of action needed to defeat Hawke’s attacks on their staffing and wages. And one of the nurses on the PANCH picket line said that their most vocal support was coming from other government workers.

The Industrial Relations Commission got short shrift from the nurses too. Irene Bolger at one stage commented that she thought most nurses considered it “a bit of a kangaroo court”. And the nurses’ action forced the Commission to back down on every issue, a lesson not lost on other workers around the country. And as we have seen, they also exposed the ACTU’s double dealing and forced them to support the nurses’ case.

As many public sector worker know, arguments about losing ‘public support’ are often used to discourage strikes or other industrial action. Nurses have been the prime targe and it took their 50-day strike just to show how wrong the critics were. Throughout most of the strike, despite all the attempts by the government and media to discredit them, the public support stayed around 75-80%. When they finally walked out of critical care, public opinion appeared to shift somewhat. But according to Irene Bolger, the support for their demands was still solid. More people simply thought they should return to work and that the government should give them what they wanted. In staffing and wage disputes at the time, workers at Social Security (Centrelink) found similar expressions of solidarity when they took industrial actions. Teachers have also found that if they build a good relationship with parents they can gain their support.

It didn’t take an advertising campaign for nurses to see the benefits of joining the RANF. Union membership climbed steadily during the dispute. One organiser quipped: “Every time David White opens his mouth, another 200 nurses join the RANF.” It was not just White’s blunders, but RANF determination that won the union the nurses’ allegiance. Julie Watts from St Vincent’s said: “It’s terrific really. I feel very strongly that this is the best move nurses have made for their profession and health care.”[31] Not only did the dispute lay the bogey of public opinion to rest, it also put another nail in the coffin of the myth of women’s passivity.

“As if anyone needed further proof of the radicalisation of Florence Nightingale there it was at Olympic Park yesterday – a T-shirt pledging allegiance to “Irene Bolger’s Nurses’ Liberation Front’. Even among the poor pun placards attacking ‘White Lies’ and ‘White Slavery’ and the buoyant almost pep rally atmosphere of the packed mass meeting, there was little doubt the striking nurses were going to hang tough. At times, between the laughter and cheering, you could even hear talk of solidarity and the workers’ struggle.”[32]

Most of the newspaper articles commented that no male unionist would have been subject to the same campaign of innuendo and smear tactics, implying that the attacks on Irene Bolger were sexist. Despite the sexist edge to some of the abuse, the leadership of many militant unions has been subject to equally savage attacks for their union’s militancy. Builders Labourers among others, are only too familiar with these sorts of smear tactics.

While the ACTU leadership underestimated the nurses, other union leaders had a different problem – the Accord. Direct Action suggested:

“Union officials who might have supported the nurses’ struggle in principle were caught in a bind. After signing the Accord allowing workers to be demobilised they could not remobilise their forces in support of the nurses. The question ‘If it’s good enough for us to strike for nurses why can’t we strike for a wage rise for ourselves’ would have to be answered.  And no union wanted to step out of line by itself. A lock of solidarity was apparent.”[33]

This was certainly true of the leadership, but at the rank and file level it was different. Workers at Ford Broadmeadows car plant said that if the nurses in the medical centre set up a picket line they wouldn’t cross it. Construction workers in the Federated Engine Drivers and Firemen’s Association (FEDFA[34]) members in the LaTrobe Valley threatened to pull the plug on the state’s electricity supply, but were, unfortunately, headed off by their leadership. Seventeen unions met in the Valley a week later to plan action but again, unfortunately, this resulted in nothing more than threats. Electrical Trades Union (ETU) members banned work on hospital lifts. Building workers (BLF, FEDFA, BWIU) and those on the waterfront (now Maritime Union of Australia MUA) levied themselves and held workplace meetings. Construction workers held a one day stoppage and marched through the city despite attempts to undermine it by the Building Workers Industrial Union (BWIU – now part of CFMEU) leadership. Earlier in the dispute, several building sites in the city marched off the job to join a nurses’ rally. Transport workers (TWU) members refused to cross picket lines and one thousand unionists braved a torrential downpour to attend a lunchtime solidarity rally. Many other unions’ members collected money, dropped in on picket lines, delivered food and helped out in a thousand different ways.

Yet, as Janey Stone wrote, “more could have been done to transform the largely spontaneous and fragmented sympathy into organised and directed support. There was no official call from the RANF to other unions for support.”[35] Such a call would certainly have strengthened the rank and file calls for action. The strike also challenged nurses’ ideas about whom they could rely on in their dispute; where they could build solidarity. Alec Kahn outlined the nurses’ response to BLF members and the police: “…many nurses accepted what they had read about the BLF, even when the press began giving them some of the same treatment. Some nurses even asked BLF members to leave one early RANF rally which they had turned up to support.”[36] But as BLF members continued to support the pickets and the strike, attitudes began to change. One nurse at the Queen Victoria said:

“I feel so guilty. I never supported the BLF. I never went and talked to anyone about what was going on. I just believed what I read.”[37]

Nurses did have faith in the police, at least at the beginning – and the police did their best to encourage nurses’ belief in them. Commissioner Mick Miller even told White he could not count on police to break the pickets. But the pretence ended about half way through the dispute. Without warning, fifty police dragged picketers at the Royal Melbourne aside across the gravel, bruising and choking them. Twice they escorted linen vans through the picket. Since the linen was not an essential supply, this was undoubtedly a manouevre by the government to demoralise the strikers just before a key mass meeting. It failed, but it showed nurses just where the police really stood in a crunch.

But the key union was the HEF, whose members were used to break picket lines for linen and coal delivery. Because the HEF continued to work on the wards, and work with ‘volunteers’, the hospitals were able to continue functioning, There were strong indications that rank and file HEF members at a number of hospitals would have been prepared to defy their leadership and walk out in support of the nurses. At Prince Henry’s for example, HEF members offered support from the beginning. Les Taylor, chief HEF shop steward, was keen to do more and so were his members:

“The members here wanted to take more action than they did. If the RANF branch in the hospital had approached us we would have taken direct action.”[38]

He indicated that several other hospitals would have gone out as well. While admitting it would have been hard to build up from there, he said he felt that HEF support would have brought the government to the negotiating table much sooner. It would also have built up solidarity at the rank and file level between the two unions, whose relations had been bitter at many hospitals.

AS the response from other unions to the attempted use of paid ‘volunteers’ (strikebreakers) indicated, the nurses could have called for more militant action from other hospital workers. Nurses in other states could also have been approached to take solidarity action. As it was, interstate nurses were only asked to give money. Irene Bolger argued at the time that spreading the dispute was “not feasible” and that the Victorian branch had no option but to “go it alone”.

Certainly, spreading the dispute would have been difficult. The support was there, but it might have been difficult to turn it into action. Firstly, the fragmented nature of the union militated against it and four years of the Accord had already undermined traditions of worker solidarity. NSW nurses were handed a relatively generous pay rise during the Victorian dispute, a move surely calculated to stem any support for the Victorian nurses and to bolster the right wing executive of the NSW Branch. Even so, Victorian RANF members could have toured interstate and made some effort to lay the basis for support action. Touring country regions of their own state had been important in strengthening nurses’ actions in the region and building solidarity.

It is precisely this building of rank and file solidarity that socialists argue is the only way to ensure that any gains from a dispute are maintained in the long term. It is this that will be essential as the government continues its cost cutting exercise. And it is hospitals like Prince Henry’s, where the links were strengthened, which show how solidarity can be built. Events soon showed that an on-going struggle was necessary. Nurses found that after they’d gone back to work, the IRC delayed bringing down the decision until late January. Then they failed to deliver on all the demands. Finally they tried to impose a no-extra claims commitment far in excess of anything asked for of any other union. The RANF had to threaten a mass meeting and further strike action to make the employers back down. And well into 1987 the union was still fighting over the fate of six victimised theatre sisters in the La Trobe Valley.

As the nurses’ dispute demonstrated, it won’t be the ‘sophisticated’ promises of advertising campaigns, or Trades Hall or ACTU controlled negotiations and arbitration (Fair Work) processes that will win, then, now or in the future. What will be needed is more “industrially naive” action by the rank and file, backed by strong support from other workers.

For the original version of this pamphlet, I interviewed Irene Bolger, then Victorian State Secretary, RANF; Ken Howard, then Industrial Officer in the federal branch of the RANF: Tom Griffiths, community health nurse and former student at Prince Henry’s; Les Taylor, chief Shop Steward, Prince Henry’s Hospital. I also visited picket lines at St Vincent’s, PANCH, Royal Melbourne and Queen Victoria Hospitals and spoke to many nurses there. My thanks go to all these people. Discussions with them helped form the basis for this article, as well as the socialist politics of the group I was involved with at the time, Socialist Action.

I have updated the original version, with minor changes to the grammar, union names and industrial relations tribunals. I have also added an afterword, describing some of the union’s successful disputes since 1986 and assessing the current (2012) state of the union in the wake of its most recent industrial campaign.


[1] Socialist Action December 1986

[2] Now members of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union – CFMEU

[3] Battler 19.11.1983

[4] The union is now the Australian Nurses Federation or ANF

[5] Matrons are now referred to as Director of Nursing Services

[6] Accord – social contract between the union movement and the ALP from 1983 to 1996. Brokered by then Prime Minister Bob Hawke, Treasurer Paul Keating and Bill Kelty and Simon Crean of the ACTU. The Accord also had major input from members of the Communist Party of Australia, especially those who were officials in the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU). See also:

[7] Age 11.10.1985

[8] Age 12.10.1985

[9] Janey Stone. Socialist Action November 1986.

[10] Age 18.10.1985

[11] Australian Financial Review 25.6.1986

[12] Direct Action 3.9.1986 [Now Green Left Weekly]

[13] Direct Action 5.11.1986

[14] CES – Commonwealth Employment Service. This used to be a government- run employment agency, now privatised.

[15] Direct Action 3.12.186

[16] Age 12.11.1986

[17] Age 12.11.1986

[18] Socialist Action February 1987

[19] Socialist Action February 1987

[20] Age 12.11.1986

[21] Age 12.12.1986

[22] Nurses had a three year hospital-based course, comprising periods working under supervision in the wards and attendance in study periods at hospital-linked Schools of Nursing,  before becoming qualified. There were also further specialist certificate courses of varying lengths. Nurses now (2012) undertake a three year university degree, with some hospital placements before qualifying.

[23] Age 12.12.1986

[24] Herald 15.12.1986. The Herald was the afternoon paper from the Murdoch stable. It was later merged with the morning Sun to become The Herald-Sun.

[25] Age 17.12.1986

[26] Australian 27.12.1986

[27] SEQEB – South East Queensland Electricity Board involved the Electricians Union. Mudginberri was an abattoir covered by the Meatworkers Union. Robe River involved several unions and Rio Tinto in a union busting exercise.

[28] . This is a critique of the Accord, which places it in its historical and international context as well as spelling out the issues in Australia in some detail.

[29] Direct Action 19.11.1986

[30] Prince Henry’s Hospital, the first Homeopathic Hospital in Victoria, was moved to Clayton and the site is now occupied by the high-priced apartment block – The Melbournian. The Queen Victoria Hospital site has one remaining building from the original women’s hospital which was saved as a women’s centre after a long campaign. The rest of the site has been carved up, as a mixed business-residential site, housing BHP-Billiton’s Headquarters among other wealthy businesses.

[31] Sun 18.11.1986

[32] Sun 12.11.1986

[33] Direct Action 28.1.1987

[34] FEDFA – covered crane crew – now amalgamated into the CFMEU.

[35] Socialist Action February 1987

[36] Socialist Action December 1986

[37] Socialist Action December 1986

[38] Socialist Action February 1987