Thousands of public sector nurses in the state of New South Wales (NSW) took part in a nationwide strike on Wednesday.
In a long-running labor dispute with the NSW state government, they are demanding a nurse-to-patient relationship to deal with hospital overcrowding and relentless workloads resulting from the erosion of public health funding and massive staff shortages. Workers are also demanding wage increases to offset rampant inflation.
The Socialist Equality Party (SEP) campaigned among workers at strike rallies. The SEP addressed the broader political issues, including the role of all official parties and the unions in enforcing a murderous “let it rip” COVID policy that has pushed the already crisis-plagued public healthcare system to a breaking point.
The SEP warned that the NSWNMA, which has isolated nurses for the better part of a year, is now preparing to impose a sell-out deal that would resolve nothing. SEP campaigners called on nurses to take matters into their own hands by forming independent constituency committees and uniting with other sections of workers, in health care, education and more generally.
Victoria, a freshman nursing student whose mother is also a nurse told the WSWS that students “do a lot of internships and I have noticed that during the internship we have become accustomed to filling short staffing positions. They use us but we have little to no experience, which is not safe for us, not safe for the patients, not safe for anybody.
“COVID has definitely made things worse.” Speaking of the end of a mandatory isolation period for COVID-infected individuals, Victoria said: “Now they want more people to go back to work instead of being at home and taking the time they need, which is not safe. This serves the hospitals and management so they can pay less by having their full time workers back instead of sitting at home instead of having to pay temps or temps who have double pay rates.”
The WSWS explained that NSW Labor leader Chris Minns opposed mandatory staffing. “I find it horrible. It shows they don’t really care,’ Victoria said.
Speaking of the federal Labor government’s health care cuts in its recent budget, she noted: “They put so much money in their own back pockets and into things like coal mining and oil and unsustainable energy and take that money out of nursing and out healthcare where it is needed. must be. I think the budget needs to be reviewed and I think they need to get their priorities straight.
“Employees must stick together. Nurses, teachers, railroad workers, we all get messed up. We are all disrespected by the government. I think forming a team is a good idea. I also think that all health care workers should work together.”
On the issue of breaking with the union bureaucracy and the nurses setting up their own constituency committees, Victoria said: ‘I’m not very versed in that so I can’t give you a really thorough answer. But it makes sense to me. If you keep getting let down by the support system that is supposed to help you, what else are you supposed to do?”
Rumbidzai, a nurse working in an elderly care unit at Liverpool Hospital, said: ‘Usually we are understaffed. I think I get five to six messages every day asking me to work overtime. We hardly ever take a break because it is very busy.
“That’s how it was before COVID. When COVID came, everything just got worse. Most nurses have left or moved to Queensland and other states. We are left with a skeleton staff.
“People are neglected. I’ve worked shifts where you can’t change someone’s bed. They just sit in a dirty bed for four hours. It is unacceptable.”
The WSWS explained the need for ordinary committees and uniting workers in an international struggle: “Yes, certainly. The first strike we had, I think we had teachers and ambulance services. We need a joint strike, all at once. I would love that.”
Paul, a nurse from the regional hospital in Yass, attended the meeting in Sydney and spoke about an incident where a paramedic was suddenly forced to work due to a personnel crisis. “We got to a point where we just ran out of nurses to work in the hospital due to illness, leave and generally due to burnout and fatigue.
“The executive thought their only option was to staff the hospital with a paramedic, essentially asking someone to work completely outside their practice.
“It is a structured process that you have to go through in order to be accredited to work as an emergency room nurse. This paramedic was having none of that. As a result, all patients who came in were at risk due to the lack of provisional support. The management decided to do this instead of closing the department.”
Speaking of the impact of COVID in rural hospitals, Paul said: “It has brought to light a lot of issues that have always been there. It has tripled our workload; we burn more personnel. It used to be bad, but now it’s even worse. Many of these patients with respiratory symptoms had to be nursed in isolation. We often needed extra staff for that, which we don’t have.
“Do I think COVID is over? Not by a long shot. The government keeps saying it’s over, but it’s not. We are still caring for patients with COVID, we are still trying to isolate them and we are still dealing with particularly sick patients due to COVID.”
The WSWS asked Paul what he thought of the need for united worker action. He replied, “I agree. Why was that not mentioned? I don’t know. That’s a question. This is just the beginning, I think. We should have continuous strikes, hopefully also combined strikes with other unions.”
In Newcastle Claudia spoke of the attack on Western Australian nurses by the McGowen Labor government in that state and the fines against nurses in NSW for striking, which the NSWNMA paid without notifying its members.
She stated: “It is like a dictatorship. What happened to freedom of speech? A year earlier, we went on strike for half a day and my manager went on strike with us, and she got into trouble. She hasn’t dated us since then, so if that isn’t dictatorship, then I don’t know what is. There are other staff who have been stopped from striking in a similar way.
“Conditions are so bad that people are handing nursing with their fists. Older nurses are leaving five to ten years earlier than expected. Young nurses who are newly enrolled are lucky enough to experience one to two years post-registration.
“I joined the union 28 years ago when I started nursing. It was known as the weakest union. Our action has only recently intensified, but it took a crisis for this to happen. They got 28 years of my fee for basically nothing. We need a plan and consultation on what needs to be done.”
Hattie, a community nurse who also attended the meeting in Newcastle, said: “I support Western Australian nurses. I think it’s bad that they’ve been gagged and that it’s a Labor government. I did not know that. I also didn’t know there were fines against the union here, that’s terrible. We have the right to strike. The fines should not have been paid.”
An anonymous nurse of Cessnock Hospital in rural NSW said she had been working for 8 years. The impact of COVID has been disastrous. “We used to have a COVID clinic, but we don’t have it anymore. Now we have to do a screening for COVID in the Emergency Room (ER). If they test for COVID they will stay in ED unless they get into a private room, but we only have 4 private rooms in Cessnock. Almost every night we have someone with COVID because we don’t have enough space. They can’t go to the toilet because there is only one in the ER, so we have to run bedpans.”
The nurse described how to call the emergency room when she is on duty due to lack of staff. They “could be anywhere,” she said. ‘I’ve spoken to people in Belfast, England, Scotland, Wales, America, Saudi Arabia… and we never get the same doctor twice. We had a CPR incident and couldn’t get anyone on the phone for 45 minutes. He was resuscitated by nurses, without a doctor. That’s where we are.
“Labour’s latest budget is not fair. The government doesn’t care or see us as important. There has been such a long-standing, right-wing shift in Australian politics. We don’t get any pay raises because our pay raises are below the inflation limit.”
Eliza, the chairman of the Murwillumbah Hospital trade union branch said: “The government is not listening to us. We’ve been on strike for a year now to get ratios. They keep telling us to stop our strike.”
Asked about the resurgence of COVID-19 unleashed by governments, Eliza commented: “We are getting spikes of COVID and they keep warning us when the spikes are coming, but the hospitals are filling up when that happens. We have to find space and care for the patients and we don’t have the staff for that at the moment.”
Asked if a NSW Labor government would be better, Eliza replied: “I honestly don’t know. I hope so, but at the moment it doesn’t look like it.” When told that the Albanian government’s first budget last month included a $2.4 billion cut in funding for public hospitals over the next four years, she said, “Wow, that’s a big drop. That’s not going to cover the nurses. That’s not going to cover the care we have to give patients. We are short of 300 staff for this hospital and it is not even open yet!”
When asked about the perspective of forming regular committees, Eliza replied: “The more people find out, the better chance we have, so it’s a good idea… We’re being ignored. We are kept apart. We should all come together.”