As expected frustrated nurses have voted to strike on July 5 and July 12 unless a new pay offer – due today from the 20 district health boards – meets their pay and safe staffing concerns.

The New Zealand Nurses Organisation announced today that the nearly month-long ballot of its DHB nurse, midwife and health care assistant members had resulted in a high turnout and a vote in favour of the two 24 hour strikes in mid-winter. “I do think the spectre of industrial action is a lot closer,” says NZNO industrial advisor Cee Payne.

The DHBs’ spokesperson Helen Mason said it respected NZNO members right to strike but hoped it wouldn’t come to that and they were looking forward to presenting and discussing the DHB’s latest pay offer with NZNO this afternoon.

The first strike date is five and a half weeks away but a formal strike notice is not expected to be issued until the second half of June – when it is known whether members have voted for or against the DHBs’ new offer in a series of ratification meetings being held between June 5-15.

Mason said the DHBs new offer, the third since talks began nearly 12 months ago, “strongly reflects” the Independent Panel recommendations released last week.  “Nurses, healthcare assistants and midwives are highly respected and essential members of the health team, our offer reflects that and provides a pathway to address their key pay equity and workload issues,” said Mason

Many nurses have taken to social media to say that the panel’s pay recommendations – roughly a 3 per cent pay increase a year for three years plus a $2000 lump sum – fell short of expectations. NZNO industrial advisor Cee Payne has also indicated that the DHBs will need to beef-up and repackage the pay aspect of its offer, beyond the panel recommendations, if it wants to get the deal over the line.  The panel process was recommended by the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and both parties gave full submissions to try and resolve the impasse and prevent the prospect of a winter strike. It also made a number of recommendations for safe staffing issues and easing workload stress on nurses.

Under the Code of Good Faith for Public Health Sector NZNO is required to issue a formal strike notice at least a fortnight before taking the first industrial action. The 20 DHBs starting contingency planning in late March after NZNO’s DHB members voted to reject the DHBs’ second pay offer and after it became increasingly clear that stretched and stressed nurses were ready to strike as nurses’ pent-up frustrations at safe staffing and pay issues rose to the surface.

Mason said last week that the DHBs are committed to finding a settlement but also had an obligation to ensure patient safety so were continuing to work through contingency plans to maintain essential hospital services in case their offer was rejected and strike action was taken.

NZNO president Memo Musa said voting to strike was a “very difficult decision” for members and not taken lightly.  He said patient safety was paramount and NZNO was fully committed to negotiating providing agreed life preserving services to meet. Payne said NZNO had met with the DHB representatives to discuss developing contingency plans including meeting with the person who has co-ordinated the response to all industrial action held in the DHBs for nearly two decades.

The last major strike action in the DHB sector was when about 3000 house officers and registrars covered by the NZ Resident Doctors’ Association (RDA) and 20 District Health Boards collective agreement took three days of strike action in January 2017 and 48 hours in October 2016 over a call for safer rosters. The proposed July nurses strike would involve NZNO members who make up the majority of the DHBs’ 27,000 nursing workforce.

The first and last nationwide strike by public hospital nurses was in 1989 when nurses who were members of the then New Zealand Nurses’ Association and the Public Service Association (PSA) took strike action on February 14. The passing of the Employment Contracts Act 1991 saw the breakdown of national bargaining and regional NZNO strikes followed in 1992-93 in areas like Auckland and Nelson-Marlborough, the decade ended with a three day strike in 1999 by Waikato nurses, and the last NZNO public hospital strike was held in Christchurch in 2001.

Mental health nurses from 15 hospitals and units who were PSA members took strike action in 2004.

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