We have unions because they’re the only way that workers have any power. If we lived in a world where everyone acted in good faith, with honesty, integrity and accountability, there would be no need for unions, but instead we’re here.
Where is ‘here’?
It’s a country where employer after employer has been exposed as systematically ripping off their workers – very often those who are already earning low or minimum wage, and faced minimal consequences apart from restitution. That’s not an option for individual workers caught stealing from their employers, but we need to protect business.
It’s a country where the number of casualised workers rises daily, to the benefit of business and at the cost of people – insecure work means no accrued leave, no certainty, no credit, difficulty securing loans for cars and rental agreements for housing, and no disposable income to support the economy.
This, and hundreds more reasons, is why I wrote to the MPs whose votes will determine whether this legislation is passed. Here’s what I said:
I am registered nurse in Victoria. I worked at one of the most acute public hospitals for just under 28 years, caring for some of our state’s sickest patients, plus a small handful airlifted from Tasmania.
In 2000 I made the decision to leave a profession and a field I loved, because I couldn’t provide the standard of care my patients needed and deserved. On most day shifts I was responsible for seven or eight patients, and sometimes as many as twelve. Medications were late, dressings weren’t done, important conversations and patient education had to be cut short because there just wasn’t enough time.
Then Commissioner Blair introduced the world’s first nurse to patient ratios, mandating the number and skill mix of nurses based on the type of unit and acuity of facility. At the Alfred, where I worked, that meant one nurse for four patients. It also meant being able to give my patients timely, quality care, and it kept me at the bedside for another 16 years.
Ratios improve patient outcomes across multiple metrics, including falls, infections, and deaths. They also reduce direct and indirect health care costs – not only are patient admissions shorter and less complicated, staff turnover and absenteeism are reduced.
Despite this, Victoria’s nurses have had to fight to keep ratios. In 2001, 2004, and 2007 we needed to take industrial action when refusing to perform non-nursing duties (like cleaning and clerical work) weren’t enough. In 2007 I was docked a fortnight’s pay because, although I cared for seven patients, was responsible for 28, and supervised three colleagues, I closed a single bed on each shift. Like my colleagues on that ward, and across the state, I did that not for higher pay or better conditions but to keep my patients safe.
In 2012 closing beds wasn’t enough to bring the state government to the negotiating table. They didn’t just want to remove ratios this time, they also tried to introduce a slew of other ‘reforms’ that would have cut short-term costs but disastrously affected both individual patients and the sector. Changes like the reintroduction of short shifts, not seen since the 60s; this would mean working for three or four hours, going home, then returning to work but not necessarily to the same ward, or even campus. The modelling they provided, using the example of a surgical ward, left two nurses on for twenty-four patients at midday. I don’t know what experiences you’ve had with hospitals. but nurses don’t have a lot of down time at any point, and most wards are busiest between 07:00 and 13:00. But I digress.
In 2012, for the first time since 1986, Victorian nurses walked out. We left, at a minimum, the same number of staff that the government proposed, and nurses could be (and were) recalled to the floor if there was clinical need. Members were so determined not to lose ratios and other safeguards that allowed us to care for our patients that we continued to walk out after the Secretary of our union told us to stop the action. Less than a week later, the state government agreed to genuine good faith negotiations, and we kept the ratios that keep us and our patients safe.
Withdrawal of labour should only ever be a last resort, and industrial action shouldn’t be our first response – it should be what we do when lesser measures are unsuccessful. In my three decades of nursing, lesser measures have always been unsuccessful. Industrial action is taken because it works.
While the most common image of unions is of a threatening CFMMEU member, the reality is that there are far more unionists like me – a (late) middle-aged, middle class, tertiary-educated professional woman; there are more nurses, midwives, and teachers who belong to a union than any other occupational group, and under Mr. Morrison’s proposed legislation we will have no voice, no power, no way to do the work we love safely and effectively.
I am writing to ask you to vote against Scott Morrison’s union busting bill.
Repeated Royal Commissions into unions have failed to uncover any systemic corruption, something that is not true of banks. That the government hasn’t enforced that Royal Commission’s recommendations demonstrated their agenda is not about integrity, accountability, and the public interest.
You were elected to represent ordinary Australians. You have the power to stand up for working people, to be our voice. Please – vote against the so-called ‘ensuring integrity’ bill, and allow nurses to do what we do best: caring for others.
Thank you for your time,
Please add your voices to mine, and those of thousands of other Australian workers.
You can send them an email via this link, or call their parliamentary offices:
Jacqui Lambie 02 6277 3614
Rex Patrick 02 6277 3785
Pauline Hanson 02 6277 3184
Malcolm Roberts 02 6277 3694
Stirling Griff 02 6277 3128