Thousands of New South Wales (NSW) public sector nurses took part in a statewide strike on Wednesday.
In a long-running industrial dispute with the NSW state government, they are demanding nurse-to-patient ratios to deal with overcrowding in hospitals and the relentless workload due to cuts in public health funding and the massive shortage of staff. Workers are also demanding wage increases to offset runaway inflation.
The Socialist Equality Party (SEP) campaigned among workers at strike rallies. The SEP raised the broader political issues, including the role of all official parties and trade unions in enforcing a deadly COVID-19 policy that has brought the already crisis-ridden public health system to a point of breakup.
The SEP has warned that the NSWNMA, which has been isolating nurses for most of the year, is now preparing to impose a sell-out deal that would solve nothing. SEP activists have called on nurses to take matters into their own hands by forming independent rank-and-file committees and uniting with other sections of workers, in health, education and more widely.
Victoria, a first-year nursing student whose mother is also a nurse, told the WSWS that students “do a lot of internships and I found that during internships we got used to filling in the staffing gap. They use us but we have little or no experience, which is not safe for us, not safe for patients, not safe for anyone.
“COVID has absolutely made things worse.” Speaking on the end of a compulsory isolation period for people infected with COVID, Victoria said: ‘Now they want more people to come back to work rather than being at home and taking the time they need, which is not sure. This serves hospitals and management so they can pay less by getting their full-time employees back instead of being home rather than having to pay temps or temporary staff who have double pay rates.
The WSWS explained that NSW Labor leader Chris Minns opposed mandatory staffing ratios. “I think it’s awful. It shows they don’t really care,” Victoria said.
On cuts to health care by the Federal Labor Government in its recent budget, she commented: ‘They have put so much money into their own back pockets and into things like coal and oil mining and unsustainable energy and have taken that nursing and health care money to where it belongs. I think this budget needs to be reviewed and I think they need to get their priorities straight.
“Workers need to stick together. Nurses, teachers, railway workers, we are all paid for nothing. We are all despised by the government. I think teaming up would be a great idea. I think all health workers should team up as well.
On the question of breaking with union bureaucracy and nurses setting up their own rank-and-file committees, Victoria said: “I’m not very educated on this so I can’t give you a really in-depth answer. But it makes sense to me. If you continue to be disappointed with the support system that is supposed to help you, what else are you supposed to do? »
hail, a nurse working in an elderly care unit at Liverpool Hospital, said: “Most of the time we are understaffed. I think I get five to six messages every day asking staff to work overtime. We almost never take breaks because it’s so crowded.
“It was like that before COVID. Then when COVID came, everything got worse. Most nurses have left or moved to Queensland and other states. We end up with a skeleton staff.
“People are left behind. I’ve been on shifts where you can’t change someone’s bed. They just sit in a soiled bed for four hours. This is unacceptable.
The WSWS explained the need for rank-and-file committees and to unite workers in an international struggle: “Yes, definitely. The first strike we had, I think we had teachers and ambulance services. We need a united strike, all on strike at the same time. I would like to.”
Paul, a nurse from Yass Regional Hospital, attended the rally in Sydney and spoke of an incident where a paramedic was suddenly asked to work due to a staffing crisis. “We got to a point where we just didn’t have any nurses left to work in the hospital due to illness, furlough and simply 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 of their scope of practice.
“There is a structured process that you must follow to obtain the necessary certification to work as an emergency department nurse. This paramedic had none of that. As a result, all patients who entered were put at risk due to the lack of interim support. The executive decided to do this instead of closing the department.
On the impact of COVID in rural hospitals, Paul said, “It brought out a lot of issues that have always been there. This tripled our workload; we burn more staff. Things were bad before, but they are even worse now. Many of these patients who had respiratory symptoms had to be treated in isolation. Often we needed extra staff to do this, which we don’t have.
“Do I think COVID is over? Not by far. The government keeps saying it’s over, but it’s not. We continue to care for COVID patients, we are still trying to isolate them, and we are still dealing with patients who are particularly sick from COVID.
The WSWS asked Paul what he thought about the need for unified worker action. He replied, “I agree with that. Why was this not called? I do not know. It’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 about the attack on Western Australian nurses by McGowen’s Labor government in that state and the fines imposed on NSW nurses for striking, which the NSWNMA paid without informing its members.
She said: “It’s like a dictatorship. What happened to freedom of expression? Last year we went on a half-day strike and my manager went on strike with us, and she got in trouble. She hasn’t dated us since, so if that’s not like a dictatorship, I don’t know what is. There are other staff members who have been prevented from striking in the same way.
“The conditions are so bad that people are leaving fist nursing. Older nurses are leaving five to ten years earlier than they had planned. Young nurses who have just registered have the chance to see one to two years after registration.
“I joined the union 28 years ago when I started to become a nurse. It was known as the weakest union. Our action has only recently gained strength, but it took a crisis for that to happen. They got 28 years of my fees for next to nothing. We need a plan and a discussion of what needs to be done.
A cap, a community nurse also at the Newcastle rally, said: ‘I support nurses in Western Australia. I find it a shame that they have been muzzled and that it is a Labor government. I did not know. I also didn’t know that there were fines against the union here, it’s terrible. We have the right to strike. The fines should not have been paid.
An anonymous nurse from Cessnock Hospital in rural NSW said she had worked for 8 years. The impact of COVID has been disastrous. “Before, we had a COVID clinic, but now we don’t. Now we have to do a COVID screening in the emergency department (ED). If they test for COVID they stay in the ER unless they are in a private room, but we only have 4 private rooms at Cessnock. Almost every night we have someone with COVID because we don’t have enough room. They can’t go to the bathroom because there’s only one in the emergency room, so we have to change the bedpans.
The nurse described how she has to call emergency doctors when she is on duty due to lack of staff. They “can 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 one incident with resuscitation and we couldn’t reach anyone 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 considers us important. There has been a long-term right-wing shift in Australian politics. We are not getting pay raises because our pay raises are below inflation.
Elisa, the president of the union branch of the Murwillumbah hospital, declared: “The government does not listen to us. We have been on strike for a year now, trying to get ratios. They keep telling us to stop our strike action.
Asked about the resurgence of COVID-19, let go by governments, Eliza commented, “We have COVID spikes, and they keep warning us when the spikes are coming, but hospitals are filling up when it happens. We have to find room and care for patients and we don’t have the staff to deal with that at the moment.
Asked if a NSW Labor government would be better, Eliza replied: ‘Honestly, I 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 called for a $2.4 billion cut in funding for public hospitals over the next four years, she said: “Wow, that’s a big decrease. It will not cover nurses. It will not cover the care we have to provide to patients. We are 300 employees short of this hospital, and it hasn’t even opened yet!
Asked about the prospect of forming rank-and-file committees, Eliza replied, “The more people behind it, the more chances we have, so it’s a good idea… We’re being ignored. We are separated. We should all come together.
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