Sunday, April 27, 2014

Queensland public health workers in fightback

Vanguard May 2014 p. 6
Ross G

Organisers estimate about 2,000 doctors and supporters attended a meeting in Brisbane on 19th March, and voted overwhelmingly to reject Government contracts (ABC News photo)

The ongoing crisis for capital in most of the capitalist world, including Australia, is leading to greater pressure from governments and business leaders to wind back state financing of public utilities as an "unproductive investment".

The Queensland LNP government elected last year is going about this process in a methodical and politically strategic manner.  They have learnt from the heavy handed approach which the Howard government applied that led to its downfall.

Currently they have set one of their sights on the public health system, which currently accounts for 27% of Queensland government expenditure.  In the context of a government campaign aimed at building public support for transferring Qld State assets into private hands, we should question whether the privatisation of public health assets and hospitals is being seriously considered.

The Qld Government has used the widely known Qld Health payroll disaster as a pretext for a sustained assault on nurses in public hospitals. 

Secretary of the Nurses Union in Qld, Beth Mohle, said last year that "nurses and midwives are facing privatisations, out-sourcing, cutting of positions, attacks on the Union...Not only have we lost 1100 jobs in 12 months but there’s demotions going on everywhere. In Metro North they wrote to 3,000 experienced Grades 5 and 6, (that’s the base grade registered Nurse and clinical Nurse) to take redundancies so that they could be replaced by part-time, temporary new graduates [with a lower pay rate]. So they’ll save millions of dollars each year, and have a more contingent workforce....they are also rolling back many of the advances that were made for women in the previous two decades, for example power has been more equally distributed within the Health system with nursing and midwifery, and allied health and other groups getting more power. Now the tables have been turned around, and they’re trying to get some of that power back “(Qld Journal of Labour History, Sept, 2013).

Nurses are using their organisation to fight back.  At the Mater Hospital in Brisbane, nurses face severe restrictions on working conditions such as continuing professional development allowance, long service leave, and maternity leave. The hospital bosses also want the ability to force them into redundancy or redeployment elsewhere.  They have not received a pay rise in the past three years. They are now campaigning to gain public support to restrict these attacks and put in place an agreement that will restore pay rates.

Doctors in public hospitals are also facing a determined attack on their conditions.  They work for wages significantly lower than they could gain in private practice, in order to work in "public service".  They are committed to ensuring that patients in public hospitals receive health treatment that is consistent with best practice, not second grade treatment.

Last year, the State Government announced it was breaking an enterprise agreement with public hospital doctors and would introduce statutory individual contracts.  The three unions covering these doctors attempted to negotiate a good outcome for their members, but in January this year the State government announced it had finalised the contracts to be offered.  The contracts would strip away vital working conditions, for example significant provisions relating to fatigue management, and allow doctors to be dismissed at any time for no reason.

The response from the AMA to these contracts has been a strong rejection, saying:

·         - Specialist contracts give Government unilateral power to vary hours and pay

·         - There are no requirement to notify or consult on roster changes, no mechanism for accrued days off

·         - There are no guarantees rostering will be fair and equitable

·         - Senior medical officers (SMOs) can be arbitrarily dismissed with no unfair dismissal provisions

·         - SMOs will no longer have access to the Qld Industrial Relations Commission

·         - There will be no incentive for junior doctors to train in Qld

 Senior Medical Officers (SMOs) and Visiting Medical Officers (VMOs) across Queensland have overwhelmingly rejected these contracts. On 19th March, 2,000 doctors and supporters attended a meeting in Brisbane and voted to reject the contracts and proceed with plans for mass resignations.

The Queensland Government response to this show of solidarity and strength from doctors has not been to sit down and discuss the extraordinary passion and commitment shown by a traditionally very conservative section of the community.  Rather, the response has been to threaten them with strike breakers, and attack their organisations.

"If we have to recruit people from interstate or overseas, Madam Speaker, we shall do that," Premier Campbell Newman told Queensland Parliament.  "...people like ASMOFQ [Australian Salaried Medical Officers' Federation Queensland] ... they are simply a bunch of people who want a war, not a solution."

The ferocity of the Qld Government attack on doctors and nurses indicates an agenda not based on ideology, but rather on underlying economic and political strategies essential to the major sections of capital in Queensland.

To every action, a reaction.  This attack has united all health workers in Queensland around their ongoing struggle.  It has also led to a widespread support for these workers from workers around Queensland.  A poll conducted by the "Keep our Doctors" campaign group (see their website) in four Queensland electorates found 68% of people support the doctors.  However, they are still pushing ahead with individual contracts for these doctors, as they are for all higher paid public servants – as a means of removing them from union organisation and coverage.

The collective response of these medical workers is an inspiration to all other workers around Australia.

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