Public hospital nurses cast their last votes this week knowing the next step could be voting on taking the first national nursing strike in nearly 30 years.

Three weeks of voting on the 20 DHBs’ latest pay offer closes on Friday for the 27,000 nurses, midwives and health care assistant members covered by the New Zealand Nurses Organisation DHBs collective agreement.

If more than half of nurses reject the DHB’s revised offer the union has indicated that the next likely step would be a strike ballot.

The first and only national nursing strike by members of what is now the New Zealand Nurses Organisation was in February 1989.  Following the breakdown of national bargaining in the 1990s a number of public hospital nursing strikes were held in regional pockets across the country in 1992-93, again in 1999 and soon after the turn of the century.

Many, many nurses have taken to social media during these negotiations to express frustration to anger that they believe the pay offer does not reflect their skills, working conditions or clinical responsibilities in the modern health system. The new pay offer includes a yearly 2 per cent pay rise over two years, a lump sum payment, a tightening of safe staffing implementation requirements, and an agreement that any pay equity settlement would apply from July 1 next year.  Social media comments indicate that a sizable number of nurses – who had their last major ‘pay jolt’ increase in 2005 – regard the current pay offer and safe staffing promises as too little too late.

But how nurses have actually voted will not be publically known until Monday.  Both the union and DHBs have indicated they want to reach a settlement without strike action being taken.

A DHBs spokesman told the New Zealand Herald that while it hoped nurses had voted ‘yes’ to the deal it had started plans to meet next week to discuss a national contingency plan if nurses voted ‘no’ and went on to take industrial action.

“If [the pay offer] is rejected we’d love to meet with the union to find out what we can do to avoid industrial action,” the spokesperson told the Herald.

Cee Payne, NZNO industrial services manager told the Herald that the union felt strongly about current working conditions for DHB nurses.

“They are suffering from increased workloads, they feel hospitals are unsafe, they’re feeling stressed, fatigued, their job satisfaction is down – all of that is impacting on ultimately them feeling undervalued,” she told the Herald. “We’re standing right beside them and listening but we can’t campaign at this point in time.”

The union has faced criticism from some members about its campaign stance while negotiations were underway but president Memo Musa has pointed out that as an essential service NZNO was bound by a Code of Good Faith under the Employment Relations Act.

In a response to a recent Facebook post about NZNO being “over cautious” the union posted a reply saying the last time there was a ballot for national industrial action by junior doctors the DHBs had filed an injunction to challenge the validity of the union members’ decision. “We think it is of the utmost importance that our actions protect and uphold your collective decision,” said the NZNO post.

Meanwhile the New Zealand, please hear our voice Facebook page founded by two nurses to get public backing for the nurses’ cause now has 41,000 members. The petition they launched a week ago – calling for safer staffing and working conditions for New Zealand nurses – now has more than 18,000 signatures. They are also proposing a series of marches on May 12, International Nurses Day, with nine currently proposed from Whangarei to Dunedin.

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