Experience: a Respect Our Work activist

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Chris Morgan, a nurse at Frankston Hospital, spoke to the NSWNMA council of delegates the other day about her experience as an activist in the Respect Our Work campaign in Victoria in 2011-12. Here is her story.

I would like to share my experience of the 2011/2012 EBA (Enterprise Bargaining Agreement campaign) in Victoria. This was a time of enormous personal growth for me – I had always been a union member but became a rep, an activist, when I was needed the most. It was challenging; at times I was tearful, frightened and exhausted. But ultimately the experience was a very satisfying and rewarding one. I’m going to share with you some of the things that worked for us, what didn’t and how everyone can be involved.

Respect Our Work Facebook page with Chris Morgan holding placard on far right.

The key factor that kept me going through all the ups and downs and which I believe was responsible for the success of our campaign was our solidarity. Find ways to keep each other informed. Attend the meetings – this is especially important for nightshift and part-time workers. This can avoid the spread of misinformation.

Everything that we did, we did it together. Our patients sat with us in their wheelchairs on the side of the road. Our families and friends delivered pizzas, pots of soup, spaghetti and icy poles when it was hot. We stood together as comrades through 35 degree heat one day and pouring rain another. Members of 18 other Victorian unions, including teachers, ambulance officers and firefighters, joined us on our rallies. We also had some celebrity supporters. Pat Cash played a set of tennis in the red shirt, Jimmy Barnes wore the bandanna during a performance and several others joined in the marches or posed for photos. Our biggest march through the Melbourne CBD to Parliament was attended by 10,000 protesters and it was amazing to walk down Bourke Street with office workers waving support from their windows. This rally was just one of the activities which helped to educate the public about our campaign. Victorians were beginning to understand it wasn’t about a pay claim but about ratios, improved patient outcomes and staff retention and satisfaction.

We were everywhere. 70,000 red T-shirts were distributed and could be seen at the cricket, the Australian Open, Carols by Candlelight, on Facebook and on Twitter. There were ads on TV and the radio. We even managed one red-shirt protest outside our premier’s hotel in New Delhi, India. We were always ready, whether it was at the market or the unveiling of a statue, we were there in red waiting to ask questions, flying our flags and holding placards. Sticking together, strong and united, comrades, little red ninjas. I must admit at times I even wore a Respect our Work t-shirt to bed.

Pat Cash wearing the t-shirt in the Australian Open 2011.

The campaign consumed my life for the 11 days that nurses walked off the ward twice daily for four hours at a time at Frankston Hospital. Nurses carried mobile phones with them so that they could be called back to the ward if needed. Fifteen hospitals were involved in rolling stoppages over 14 days and four hospitals were involved in impromptu stoppages. It didn’t matter if you left the ward for 30 minutes or four hours, you still had your pay docked for four hours. This was later reimbursed through a ‘hardship fund’ comprised of donations to the ANF. Some nurses chose not to leave the ward but donated to this fund instead.

Each time I left my ward, I explained what I was doing, made sure my patients were comfortable , leaving them with the call bell and handing over to another nurse before leaving. Remembering that I was doing it for them.

Some NUMs took the floor, administering medication and patient care. Mostly everyone worked together and our patients kept encouraging us. Many areas of the hospital were exempt from bed closures. Also if a patient’s condition was expected to deteriorate, beds were opened again.

The Age newspaper published a document ‘Cabinet in Confidence’, which outlined the Government’s plan to reduce staffing in Victorian hospitals so much that staffing during the day and evening would be worse than night shift ratios. This information made nurses and midwives angry and even more determined to follow through with these difficult walkouts and bed closures.

Another thing that made it easier was always walking out together as a large group, because it can be intimidating and emotional.

Though not on our side at first, the media became an invaluable resource. At times they tipped us off. One of those times was when David Davis the Health Minister visited Frankston impromptu. With only 30 minutes before his arrival, I gathered a few nurses and together we telephoned wards and summoned whoever we could to come out the front and greet him. Mr Davis snuck in without us noticing but a kind news reporter quickly told me ‘there he goes’ and I ran up the hallway calling his name until he stopped. I asked him to please chat to us after his official business. Approximately 50 nurses gathered and waited and asked Mr Davis questions. This was all recorded and made the news that night and papers the next day.

The Respect our Work Facebook page had 15, 000 followers and social media was incredibly effective in getting messages of support out there. In fact it was so effective we were told not to use it! CEOs and hospital management felt so threatened they had someone watching the Facebook page 24/7.

So what didn’t work for us? Well, not everybody agreed on the same course of action all the time. Staff chose to be involved in the industrial action in different ways and to different extents. There was some pressure to conform, one way or the other, and stress and tension caused clashes between nurses. Misinformation and rumours led to confusion. Some staff were worried about being fined and even losing their jobs or their immigration status, based on information that simply wasn’t true. There was talk of a $6600 fine for participating in industrial action – in the end not a single person was charged with this.

Ultimately, after nine months of negotiations and refusing to back down, we were successful. When the EBA was finalised, we kept our ratios. We actually improved ratios in some areas. We avoided short shifts and split shifts. Our pay rise was not significant, however we were given a professional development allowance. Our union was strengthened, with 2500 new members, many new reps and a renewed passion for our rights and the rights of our patients.

The last thing I’d like to tell you about my experience is that it was actually a lot of fun and lasting friendships were formed. Everyone has something to contribute. Be creative, clever, careful and a little devious and above all stick together, to protect your patients, your families and the community.

I wish you luck in your campaign.

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