By Bryan Sketchley
What was shaping as a significant, and possibly protracted, industrial dispute in Victorian hospitals was settled on 4 May.
The state Labour government offered a 2.25% wage increase, over three years, and an additional .75% if nurses agreed to give up nurse - patient ratios. The nurse patient ratios system - 5 nurses rostered for 20 patients - has made intolerable working conditions, in the words of the Nurses Federation, 'barely tolerable.'
On top of that Victorian nurses are currently amongst the worst paid in the country. An entry level nurse in Victoria will earn $55 a week less than a NSW counterpart, and a charge nurse in Victoria can expect to earn $194 less a week than someone in NSW doing the same work. Since the introduction of ratios almost 4000 nurses have returned to the public health system.
Premier Bracks and the Labour government played hardball with the nurses and wouldn't concede anything beyond the original offer. While Victorian public servants recently accepted a similar offer, the government has argued that the state can't afford a 'wages blow-out.'
However, the same week that negotiations between the nurses and the government got bogged down saw Bracks announce a $1.9 billion package of tax cuts and subsidies to business. The announcement was heralded in the business pages with headlines like 'Bracks govt. wins heart of corporate world.' (The Age, 26 April). The Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce submission to government earlier in the year requested assistance somewhat more modest than what the government delivered.
As negotiations between the nurses and the government bogged down, nurses voted for bans, that closed over 1000 beds across the state. Predictably, the government attempted to portray the nurses' actions as an assault on patients, yet made no mention of nearly 500 beds across the state being closed on any given day due to funding shortfalls.
The proposed replacement for the ratio system, Trendcare, has been trialled at Monash University School of Nursing, where four out of five nurses believed it rarely, if ever, identified staffing needs. Nurses' rightly feared that the proposed new system would lead to an increase in workloads.
The nurses' campaign to defend and extend the patient ratio is critical for a reasonable level of care for public hospital patients. It's even more critical for nurses working in public health to have their 'barely tolerable' conditions maintained.
On May 4, nurses agreed to accept the package put to them by the ANF executive. Rural and regional nurses expressed dissatisfaction that the union had not been able to extend the 'five-for-twenty' nurse patient ratio system beyond the metropolitan area. In large measure the package can be seen as a victory for nurses, in terms of their defence of the nurse patient ratio system while achieving a moderate pay outcome.