Hospital midwives are voting on striking again in the New Year after mediation led to a “big fat nothing”, says midwives’ union MERAS spokeswoman Jill Ovens.

A fortnight of rolling strike action by 1155 public hospital midwives finished last week and the 20 DHBs and MERAS met last Friday for unsuccessful mediation to resolve the nearly 18 month protracted pay dispute.

The midwives had rejected the 20 DHBs’ offer which was based on the DHBs agreement with NZNO nurses and midwives over safe staffing concerns ­­– and because the offer would continue to keep registered midwives’ pay on par with registered nurses, despite different scopes of practice and training requirements.

Ovens said it met with the district health board negotiators for mediation on Friday expecting a new offer but received a “big fat nothing”. She said MERAS negotiators were told that no offer was available as it had been taken off the agenda of a ministerial oversight group made up of the ministers of health, finance, workplace relations and state services.

But this has been denied this morning on Radio New Zealand by Finance Minister Grant Robertson and DHBs chief executives’ spokesperson Jim Green. In a statement Health Minister David Clark has also said that ministers are not party to the DHB MERAS negotiations.

Yesterday Green said DHBs hoped midwives would reconsider taking further strike action as the DHBs were actively working with MERAS to address midwives’ broader workforce concerns, had made a significant pay offer and were investigating a pay equity claim that would be effective from December 31 2019.

Meanwhile Ovens said midwives are very angry and frustrated at having no resolution to the pay talks which began in June 2017 before being stalled until the extended DHB NZNO dispute was finally resolved in August this year.

Clark said the broad parameters of a deal for midwives had been clear since the outset, and  those parameters reflected the earlier settlement with the NZNO. “

“I’m aware of MERAS’ view that midwives should be paid more than nurses. In practice MERAS and NZNO settlements have been aligned for many years. There is an appropriate mechanism to consider these issues – the pay equity process. Nurses and midwives are working through that process over the next 12 months.”

APEX joins call

APEX, a union representing allied scientific and technical practitioners in the health sector, today came out in support of Jill Ovens comments regarding Ministerial intervention in bargaining in health.

Dr Deborah Powell, national secretary of both APEX and NZRDA (the union representing New Zealand’s Resident Doctors) said the two unions wrote to the four ministers concerned on 16 November 2018 that increasing levels of strike action – including physiotherapists and anaesthetic technicians – were happening due to frustration at the central government hindering negotiations.

“We attend bargaining and are told of offers the DHBs wish to make, only to have something entirely different and deficient formally offered after. We’re being told that this is due to the Ministry of Health and Ministerial intervention,” said Powell.

“Like the midwives union (MERAS), we have also had promises at the table reneged on, again – according to the employers team – due to the actions of the Ministry of Health acting on instruction from this ministerial group.

“Even if a Ministry-derived offer might be acceptable, the delay in getting sign off is resulting in frustration boiling over into industrial action for some of our members whose collective employment agreements have been expired for well over a year now,” said Powell.

New midwives’ strike ballot

Ovens said the level of frustration is so high that members are threatening mass resignations.  “But we’re not encouraging that – it’s not part of our industrial campaign.”

She said MERAS has today filed for facilitation through the Employment Relations Authority on the basis of a breach of good faith bargaining and the protracted nature of the negotiations.

It was also putting another strike ballot out to members asking them to vote on industrial action in the New Year.  Asked about whether it would be a repeat of the two hour rolling strikes, Ovens said it would involve escalated strike action in January and February.

She said staff had been keen to strike over Christmas but timing mean that was not possible because of the requirement for two weeks’ notice.

Before proposed strike action went ahead she said MERAS members were also seeking to renegotiate life preserving service (LPS) requirements with the 20 DHBs after frustration at the high number of midwives expected to provide LPS during the last action.

“People were asking when is a strike not a strike,” said Ovens. She said LPS agreements had ended up covering everything “except opening the door for visitors” but at some DHBs LPS midwives were even doing that.

Ovens said while midwives voted on the ballot the union was asking members to stick to the conditions of their collective agreement and take meal breaks and ask to be paid overtime when get called back onto duty.

The strike ballot will close on Friday December 22.

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