Australia: Extend the New South Wales nurses’ strike! Form rank-and-file committees to break the isolation imposed by the union!

Tens of thousands of nurses across New South Wales (NSW), Australia’s most populous state, voted for a strike of up to 24 hours on March 31, just six weeks after staged a 24-hour shutdown on February 15, the first statewide strike by NSW nurses in nearly a decade.

Nurses on strike in Sydney on February 15, 2022 [Credit: WSWS media]

That the union, the Nurses and Midwives Association of New South Wales (NSWNMA), was forced to call a vote for a second strike is a demonstration of the anger and determination to fight among health workers. As the nurses said: nothing has changed since February 15!

The nurses’ strike last month was held in defiance of a pro-business NSW Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) ban. Once again the IRC has banned the strike scheduled for March 31st.

The Rank and File Health Workers Committee is warning nurses and health care workers that the union may try to call off the strike or limit it. As with the February 15 strike, only public sector nurses who are union members were able to vote, and the decision whether or not to strike and for how long is left to each branch.

The dire conditions faced by nurses in NSW are replicated across Australia and around the world. The new strike vote is part of a growing pushback from health care workers and other sections of workers internationally, with strikes and protests erupting. But every effort is made by the unions to isolate these struggles.

Just last week, NSW paramedics covered by the Australian Paramedics Association (APA) took 24-hour industrial action over wages and staffing shortages, defying an IRC ‘recommendation’ that the action is to be reversed, while critical care paramedics in Union Health Services (HSU) took separate action with partial work bans. Paramedics denounced the unions’ limited action as “pathetic”.

Public mental health workers, including nurses, staged a statewide strike in Victoria earlier this month in response to a stalled enterprise agreement (EBA). The action was limited to just three hours by the union.

Health unions have repeatedly rejected calls from their members to unite industrial action by health workers. They have blocked any joint mobilization with other sections of workers, including NSW railway staff, who face the same salary cap as nurses, as well as teachers, who have been forced by unions in the education in classrooms infected with COVID.

This is why health care workers must take matters into their own hands by forming rank-and-file committees, independent of the unions, fighting against the bureaucracy’s attempts to impose betrayals and isolate struggles. Simply put, the only way forward is to break the stranglehold of corporatized unions and embark on a new path.

First, New South Wales nurses must call on all healthcare workers across Australia to take action against threats from the employment tribunals and the nationwide assault on public healthcare, which is reflected by the abolition of salaries, unbearable conditions and totally insufficient resources.

Unions have used pro-business court rulings for decades to call off planned strikes at the last minute. The NSWNMA was fully prepared to end last month’s strike, holding behind-the-scenes talks with government and health officials late in the afternoon of February 14.

The only reason the union did not call off the strike was because it feared an outburst of worker opposition that it would not be able to control.

The NSWNMA is trying to channel workers’ anger and frustration behind futile appeals to NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet and the state Liberal-National, as well as the Labor Party.

These are the same governments and parties responsible for the health crisis! Over the decades, state and federal Labor and Liberal governments have overseen deepening cuts to health funding and privatization of the sector. This assault was implemented by the unions through the regressive TSAs and the suppression of strikes.

The situation has been massively worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Labor and Liberal-National governments have come together in the ‘National Cabinet’ to lift all security measures aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19, in a profit-driven transition to ‘living with the virus’.

New South Wales Liberal Premier Perrottet bragged that he conspired with Victoria’s Labor Premier Daniel Andrews to lead the scrapping of all restrictions that had successfully suppressed COVID more early in the pandemic. As Perrottet said, he listens to economic advisers, not health advice. The same goes for all state and territory leaders, including Andrews and other Labor prime ministers.

Together they ensured the massive spread of the virus knowing it would lead to infection, disease and death. The reopening of schools, central in this perspective, was not based on health considerations. Its sole objective was to “strengthen confidence in the economy”.

Unions, including the NSWNMA, did not oppose this reckless policy at all, instead serving as enforcers of homicidal COVID policies.

Nurses know better than anyone that it is a lie to declare the pandemic over. Since the start of 2022, at least 3,654 people have died from COVID-19 in Australia, nearly two-thirds of the total number of deaths recorded since the start of the pandemic.

The fight for safe staff and decent conditions for health workers and their patients is inseparable from the fight to end the pandemic. COVID-19 hospitalizations are on the rise again as the new BA2 variant sweeps the world and thousands of healthcare workers are currently isolated with COVID.

While much of the NSWNMA campaign has focused on the demand for ratios, the situation is no different in states where legislated ratios are in place, namely Queensland and Victoria. Both are believed to have imposed a 1:4 ratio, but under conditions of reduced funding there are still widespread staff shortages, with an increase in the ramp-up of ambulances and hospitals struggling to do against the number of admissions.

During strike rallies on February 15, the NSWNMA sought to suppress any political discussion among workers, warning nurses against speaking to “other protest groups.” It was a clear reference to the Socialist Equality Party, the only political tendency fighting to expose the collaboration of the union with the government and raising the need for an independent mobilization of workers.

Union tries to block nurses from talking to other parties, as it calls for ‘open dialogue’ with Perrottet government around demands for ‘nurse-to-patient ratios’ and ‘fair pay rise above 2.5 percent…to compensate [public sector workers’] wage freeze in 2020. What “open dialogue”? Union-government “negotiations” always take place behind closed doors and are then presented to workers as a fait accompli that they must accept.

The union speaks of a marginal increase in wages under conditions where the inflation rate is officially 3.5%, but in reality much higher. “Non-discretionary” inflation is 4.5%, which means that the prices of basic goods and services are soaring.

Nurses and healthcare workers are told there is no money for pay rises or higher staffing levels, but the Morrison government, with Labor, can find billions of dollars for military spending.

Thousands of people are still homeless after the recent floods and governments, both federal and state, were nowhere to be found. A month after the flood, 120 motorhomes were sent to rivers in northern NSW by the state government. However, they couldn’t be used because they don’t have water or laundry. But governments can procure, package and ship two lethal aid shipments to Ukraine, worth more than $100 million, within weeks!

Only one force can stop the war within and without: the united struggle of the international working class. To combat the ruling elite’s policy of mass infections and deaths and the escalating attack on wages and working conditions, healthcare workers must break free from the shackles of the unions and take matters into their own hands. in hand, through the formation of independent organizations of rank-and-file commissions.

Rank-and-file committees can serve as a forum for democratic discussion between nurses and other health workers on any issues they face. They can formulate responses to the latest dictates from government and hospital management that are in the interests of the workers themselves, and function as safety committees in response to the ongoing pandemic, fighting for full PPE, infection controls and other measures to protect healthcare workers.

It is a fight that can and must be won, but only if there is a break with the union, whose campaign of isolation can only be defeated. The only way forward is through the unity of strength of the entire working class in a common struggle against inequality and exploitation, directed against governments, Labour, unions and the capitalist system they all stand for. The Health Care Workers Rank Committee urges health care workers to contact us today to take up this fight.

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