Tuesday 19 June 2018

Can The Nurses Win On Their Own?

The First Of Many? If the CTU pledged itself to ensuring that the Nurses fight does not turn into a solitary struggle. If frontline health professionals could be presented as merely the first of many workers ready to embrace the tactics necessary to win substantial improvements in their wages and conditions, then trade unionism in New Zealand could have a new birth of freedom.

NEW ZEALAND’S NURSES are about to discover whether their store of public good-will is big enough to see them through a strike. New Zealanders with experience of this country’s public health system almost always speak very highly of its staff. Nurses in particular draw the public’s praise and respect. In our overburdened and understaffed hospitals they display the weary-but-unflinching professionalism of workers required to operate in an environment of more-or-less permanent crisis.

No one knows better that this country’s frontline health professionals how potentially dangerous this situation can become. New Zealand needs more nurses – lots more nurses. But to keep the staff it already has – let alone attract new recruits – nurses insist they must be paid more. Lots more.

But, how much more? That is the question. In an economy where roughly half the paid workforce have not had a pay-rise for close to two years, will the NZ Nurses’ Organisation’s demand for an immediate, across the board, 11 percent increase strike the average Kiwi as “about right” or “too much”. With an experienced registered nurse’s salary set to rise from $66,755 to $77,386 by December next year under the present offer, will the two-thirds of workers who earn considerably less than that sum (in 2016 the median NZ income was just $48,800) regard the union’s proposed strike action as reasonable – or unreasonable?

The offer on the table also guarantees that an additional 500 nurses will be recruited to the national health-sector workforce. This is clever. The single most important contributing factor to the crisis in the nation’s hospital wards is chronic understaffing. More than anything else it is the personal toll extracted by the excessive workloads caused by understaffing that is fuelling nurses’ anger and impatience with the District Health Boards’ management. It would be interesting to know whether the 9 percent offer on the table would be deemed enough if nurses could be convinced that their workloads were about to be reduced very rapidly to more bearable levels.

The DHB negotiators have also been clever in advancing the figure of half-a-billion dollars as the all-up cost of the settlement on the table. Many New Zealanders will see this as an extraordinarily generous sum – especially when the money on offer has been drawn from their taxes. In rejecting the offer, the Nurses’ union runs the risk of being dismissed as either unrealistic or greedy – or both.

The best way to avoid this perception taking hold would be for the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) to present the Nurses’ claim as the first of many. After nearly a decade of both public- and private-sector wage restraint, the unions should argue, the time has come for working people to make up the lost ground. The CTU should also emphasise the fact that Nurses are not the only workers in New Zealand who have been expected to work harder and longer for no appreciable improvement in their overall living standards. Nurses are, however, the first occupational group to vote in favour of doing something about it.

If the CTU pledged itself to ensuring that the Nurses fight does not turn into a solitary struggle. If frontline health professionals could be presented as merely the first of many workers ready to embrace the tactics necessary to win substantial improvements in their wages and conditions, then trade unionism in New Zealand could have a new birth of freedom.

If the nurses are left to fight this battle on their own, however, then, sadly, there is a better than even chance that the politics of envy and resentment will prevail over the politics of solidarity.

A version of this essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 19 June 2018.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

Employers always have the perfect answer as to why they're not going to give pay increases. If it's not a good year "oh deary me it's not a good year – we can't give pay increases." If it's a good year "gosh we know it's good but we should wait for a little while and see because it might be bad later on." You hear this time and again on the radio. I'm sort of reminded of that bit by Trevor Noah on – when IS it appropriate for black people to protest – when it's obvious the answer is "Never!"

Kat said...

I would say that most New Zealanders have nothing but sympathy and goodwill towards our wonderful nurses and its a pathetic shame and an indictment on past and present misguided politicians that they have been underpaid and overworked for a decade. The Rogergnomes placed the bomb and the "Mother of all Budgets" pressed the detonator.

Wayne Mapp said...

The nurses are basically claiming a plus 8% per annum wage and salary increase. That will flow through to a large number od other state servants. Strikes are looming across the board.

Solidarity will only if everyone can expect the same level. In truth they won't get it, not even under Labour, even though it looks like it will cave into most union demands. Certainly the unions think so, which is why they are so ready to threaten strike action.

Of course if the govt is prepared to blow any pretence at fiscal discipline at the first sign of real pressure then the unions will succeed.

The long run outcome will be inflation, higher interest rates and higher taxes.

By the way I simply don't buy the argument of permanent crisis. I have recently been in a public hospital for a few daysand everything seemed to run fine. People came on duty and went off duty. No particular overtime, and no real sign of significant understaffing. Of course that is not what the union will say. But there is no need to just buy their line, simply because they say it.

For instance their claim that Australian nurses get paid 25% more. So what, the Aussie economy is at least 25% richer than our on a GDP per capita basis. The only way to change that is for the NZ economy to become wealthier on a per capita basis. That does not start with nurses.

Patricia said...

Nurses and teachers should both have any agreed salary increase indexed to inflation and wages/salary. They would never suffer from their current indignity again.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"For instance their claim that Australian nurses get paid 25% more. So what, the Aussie economy is at least 25% richer than our on a GDP per capita basis. "

Largely because of the very unions that you castigate Wayne. The Australians kept them, we essentially got rid of them. Which is IMO a major reason why many of our kids will not – as we hoped – have a better life than we did. In fact it won't even be equal to what we had for most of them. Little job security and poor wages. And I'm sorry, but I have to blame the neocon bastards and have been running this country for years. People like you, whose kids have the advantage of cronyism and "networking". Who've been to the "right" schools, and joined the gentlemen's clubs, and make sure that their kids are looked after. While the rest of us have to whistle.

sumsuch said...

You're a virulent critic of the unnecessary right-harassing politics of this gummint. 0n the basis of it not being politic (Machiavellian enough). 'Three
Strikes' makes all the rational laugh. When you need to move from rational it dismays and discourages. Is this your job to keep us Right enough? Politics or our ideals? Thought you had put aside trying to curve around for what is established. Your arguments against this government's establishment still don't make sense to me. Your ideas for the people are magnificent, vital.

David Stone said...

No doubt the nurses feel like this is their best opportunity to catch up and maybe even get ahead. If they are worth much more overseas that's a problem. But as Wayne says a success will flow through the public sector workforce and blow the fiscal responsibility ideas. Good riddance , but it won't happen with the mindset of this administration.
Is it wise though for them to be too savage on a government that is disposed to be sympathetic? The result will be a short term government . Then back to the straightjacket. Might it not be better to work with this one?

Geoff Fischer said...

A salary of $76K for nurses, and even the $48K national median salary, seems very generous to those folk in our rohe who get by on less than half the median wage, but to be fair most of us can live off the land, and are not faced with exorbitant urban rent or mortgage interest payments. So we do not begrudge urban workers their high wages. However there should be a way of sharing socially generated wealth which is fairer and less random than individual or collective employment contracts.
Wayne Mapp makes the point that wealth is consumed rather than generated in the health sector, and implies that we need to look to the productive sectors of the economy to provide higher living standards for New Zealand workers. How is that to be accomplished? In New Zealand capital takes a higher proportion of new wealth, yet is less efficient, than in otherwise comparable economies, and New Zealand capitalism which touts itself as "smart" and "innovative", is all too often lazy, inefficient, corrupt and even downright stupid - as the mycoplasma bovis outbreak shows. That is just one of many examples of how "capitalist innovation" in New Zealand can end up costing the country billions. Enough to give the nurses all that they are demanding. Therefore the priority should be on sorting out the productive sector of the economy, and introducing a degree of fairness to the appropriation of wealth, after which health, education and the other state sector workers can be accorded a fair share of domestic production.

greywarbler said...

What 'unnecessary right-harrassing politics of this gummint' have been virulently criticised to your mind? Could you give us a brief example. Is it connected to discussion on Three Strikes?

Why is it politics or ideals that is being put on the block? This government's establishment - what does that refer to?

Your remarks are obscure.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Wayne Mapp makes the point that wealth is consumed rather than generated in the health sector,"
Wayne would be wrong, in the sense that money is actually saved in the health sector. If we didn't have a decent health sector, more wealth would be consumed. Unless you arrive at the point where you're happy for people to drop dead in the streets and be shoveled into a drain or something. You actually have to deal with health problems at some stage, even if it's simply disposing of dead bodies. Better to catch them early with a decent health system.
But only that, but if our nurses and doctors are paid to much less than those overseas they'll simply shift. Though in today's global society I suppose we could replace them with people from underdeveloped countries? (Just for the plebs mind.) Just as we do with farm workers. And according to neoliberal philosophy, the ethics of taking health workers away from underdeveloped countries where they are needed, doesn't register.

manfred said...

I respect Wayne, but this is a fantastic example of the 2-dimensional nature of the Tory mentality.

Which often skips over good old root vegetable common sense.

How the fuck are sick people supposed to work?

And what value is such a 'wealth creating economy' if there is no delivery of health care to all? What are we actually working for.

The sparkle of economic indicators are all very well and good, but if they don't produce useful outcomes then they are just that, not useful.

sumsuch said...

greywarbler --hope you're well --I don't like typing so I use as shorthand as I can. Sure Chris, who writes this column, paid closer attn than his readers. Chris's arguments against the revocation of the three strikes law and the scrubbing of the 3000 people new prison amount to 'the unnecessary right-harassing politics of this gummint'.

'Politics or ideals' is against my 'against typing' principle (above). Finally, between the election and the formation of this government Chris seemed to my eye to argue against a Left government.

Geoff Fischer said...

The national health system is funded out of tax revenue which comes from wealth created by workers and businesses in private sector primary and secondary production. The health system's share of that wealth must be deducted from the return to capital and/or the return to labour in the private sector. Health sector workers improve our lives, while many in legitimate private business (for example those who manufacture or distribute alcohol, tobacco, and pornography or run gambling casinos and brothels) only add to the general misery. But Wayne was not saying that we do not need doctors or nurses. Just that the salaries of doctors, nurses and teachers are ultimately paid by the people who pick kiwifruit, log trees, drive trucks and clean hotels. And to me that is an undeniable truth.
Paying first world wages to middle class professionals and third world wages to farm workers is the natural consequence of policies advocated by NZLP intellectuals (such as the late Professor Keith Sinclair) since the early nineteen-seventies. Neo-liberalism is a profoundly middle class project enthusiastically promoted by salaried state servants. Not farmers or capitalists. For the salaried middle classes neo-liberalism offered all the privileges of capitalism without risk or struggle. They responded by investing the surplus from their inflated salaries in the share market. When that unexpectedly turned bad on them, they switched to residential rental property. They chase higher salaries in order to expand their property portfolios, which leads them into bidding wars with other middle class professionals, which means they have to screw ever higher rents out of their working class tenants. But can anyone tell me where all this is supposed to end, or why the working class should salaried middle-class professionals in their ultimately nonsensical quest for spadeloads of "passive income"? The middle classes should be leading the rest of us towards a saner, more equitable society, but they only pay lip service to notions of equality while society goes to hell in a handcart. Why should we pay higher taxes to increase the salaries of people who earn two, three or four times what we do, and who will use their wealth to turn our people out of their homes? Because, Guerilla Surgeon suggests, our professionals will depart to Australia, the UK or the US if we don't. I, for one, would be happy to let go all those who want to go.

greywarbler said...

Thanks I'll think on those points.

And about Chris. Neither right or left wing is perfectly aligned to its duties as they should be seen by them. And sometimes Chris does a counter argument looking at things from a different angle. Somehow we have to walk between the dots and try to form a different approach that veers to left and right at times. Certainly neither 'side' has shown that it has broken through the fog and can see the way clearly for some time.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Why should we pay higher taxes to increase the salaries of people who earn two, three or four times what we do, and who will use their wealth to turn our people out of their homes? "

I'm not sure that nurses get 4 to 5 times "what we do". Unless you're on a benefit.

Geoff Fischer said...

This past weekend a doctor and nurse came to the aid of one of our people who had been injured on the job, and they received nothing for their splendid work except our heart-felt gratitude. We would feel the same gratitude when for the paid work that they undertake in the public or private health system. So I am deeply appreciative of doctors and nurses.
I don't begrudge the small amount I pay in tax. Once gone it is not my responsibility. I don't envy people who are on high salaries. They may use that money for the good of humanity and far more effectively than I could. But the question needs to be addressed. Shouldn't we be aiming for a more equitable society in which all have an equal share of income and all have an understanding and appreciation of the world which will allow them to use what they have wisely and justly? My comments were sparked by a class of workers who have consciously embraced self-interest, materialism and capitalism as their guiding principles in life. They speculate in property, shares and commodities, they rely on interest, rents and dividends to boost their incomes, and they invest in KiwiSaver. They have become wedded to capital even while drawing wages or a salary on the basis of their labour. Politically, this chimerical new middle class of capitalist workers is represented by the NZLP.
So how should we respond to this new capitalist working class? We can no longer (if we ever could) prejudge anyone based on their station in life or their political or religious position. At a personal level nothing is cut and dried. We can, however, state quite firmly that capitalism is not the way to salvation. People, whether at the top, bottom or middle of the heap, should look to find strength in community, rather than engage in the ultimately futile struggle to improve their situation within the confines of the capitalist system.