Dedication doesn’t pay the rent!
The 1986 Victorian nurses’ strike
This chapter is based on my own direct involvement with the strike. An earlier version appeared as ‘Sisters are Doing It for Themselves ... and Us’, Hecate, vol XIII (1) 1987, later reprinted as a pamphlet, Dedication Doesn’t Pay the Rent!, Socialist Action, 1987.
Nurses are often seen as the archetypal ‘handmaidens’ of men. Yet if there was ever an experience that demolished this image, it was the Victorian nurses’ strike of 1986, in which a predominantly female workforce took on and defeated the State Labor government.
Nurses’ militancy stemmed from two different kinds of experiences. The first was of working within the system, taking part in government reviews, lobbying and having high level meetings with the health minister ¾ and getting nowhere. Hospital waiting lists in Victoria reached 27,000 before the strike, and the Cain Labor government had cut the health budget, in real terms, every year since 1982-83. The toll on nurses was disastrous: they topped the 1986 compensation claims. 10,000 left nursing in 1985, and a further 8000 did not renew their practicing certificates, leaving the State with a shortfall of about 14,000 nurses.
The second, over the decade or so before the strike, was of going outside the system, taking direct action.
A look at history
In April 1975, 4000 angry nurses stormed the Victorian parliament. The issues were staffing and pay. They marched singing ‘We shall not be moved’, and carrying placards saying ‘Unite and Fight’ and ‘Dedication doesn’t Pay the Rent’. Then from 1977 to 1979, nurses in New South Wales and Queensland marched, picketed and put on bans over staffing and bed closures. The action died down during 1980-81, but picked up gain in 1982-83 with more strikes, bans and rallies, mostly in New South Wales. Most of the action was in response to State government attempts to cut back on health services by closing beds and holding down wages and conditions. In Sydney in 1982, nurses’ action stopped the closure of some city hospitals. In their rallies against further closures, city workers, including builders’ labourers, joined in.
Then, on 19 November 1983, NSW nurses went out on a total strike. One of them commented: ‘Sydney Hospital was ready to go out in April 1982. Since then there’s been 18 months of discussion. The only way to prove anything to this geezer up in Parliament House is to withdraw our labour.’
The actions were possible because the NSW Nurses’ Association and the Queensland Nurses’ Association (both splits from the Royal Australian Nurses’ Federation (RANF) had no clauses banning strikes. In all other States the situation was quieter because the RANF still had a no-strike clause in its constitution, a relic of earlier days when it was dominated by the matrons. During the Depression, they had done things like petitioning the government for a 25% wage cut (and winning it), and continually lobbying for longer hours!
By 1982 Victorian nurses, fed up with this shackle, decided to get rid of the clause. While the RANF was standing still, and nurses’ wages and conditions were deteriorating, the Hospital Employees Federation (HEF) was taking action and winning wage rises for its nursing members. Nurses began to switch their allegiance to the HEF. One placard at the time summed up the situation: ‘RANF just play the game, while the HEF strike and reap the gain.’ It took until 1984 to dump the no-strike clause, but by then the decision was overwhelming.
1984 marked further strikes in NSW over a wages and hours claim, as the State government tried to trade off cuts in wages and conditions for a 38-hour week. And in July 1984 Victorian nurses, faced with yet another cut in the health budget, fought the government. The RANF explained: ‘The 1.5% cuts are not the whole problem, they are the straw that broke the camel’s back.’ Bans were placed on non-nursing duties and the government finally responded with an offer for 300 extra non-nursing staff. But there was a catch: the money to pay their wages was to come from nursing funds, so there would be an effective cut in nursing staff. Backed by the HEF, the RANF kept the bans on, and the government backed down and unconditionally offered 700 non-nursing staff by June 1985.
NSW nurses were still fighting the Wran government over their 38-hour week. They finally won in May 1986, but not without some determined action. For Victorian nurses, 1985 culminated in their first Statewide strike.
Coupled with the cuts in health spending and inevitable staff shortages, there were some other changes in nursing. The introduction of new technology actually meant that more staff were required to run the newly created highly specialised nursing units. Another consequence was patients spending shorter time in hospital and, with a higher turnover of patients, there was more work in admissions and discharge procedures. The higher turnover also created more stress in nurse-patient relations, with more people to relate to and less time to do it in. Without doubt it was an explosive situation. But the government, as before, relied on nurses’ dedication and did not heed the changing times.
By September 1985, nurses had had enough. Because they were still led by the old guard, the response began slowly. A night time mass meeting, attended by 1700 members, was held on 23 September. A log of claims for wage rises and improved conditions, including staff-patient ratios, was adopted. Bans on wearing uniform and use of agency staff were to be in force from 30 September. In the second week of October, nurses were to implement the RANF (and award) staff-patient ratio. A stopwork meeting was planned, but not until mid-October. However, hospitals were encouraged to hold their own stopwork meetings to discuss implementing the bans. The most important indication from the members that this time they meant business, was the narrow defeat of a motion calling for immediate rolling strikes.
Health minister David White responded on 30 September with an offer on wages and conditions. The proposed wage rise was to be phased in over three years and was well below what the union wanted. There was also the added rider: sign a three-year no-strike clause and increase productivity.
The union rejected the offer and kept up the pressure.
After the nurses began working to the RANF staff-patient ratio from 7 October, White retaliated by directing management at the Alfred Hospital to scab. Management complied and, much to the government’s fury, nurses at the hospital staged an immediate 24-hour walkout. Industrial Relations minister Steve Crabb fumed, ‘It’s outrageous. I’ve never had a strike pulled on me in the middle of negotiations.’ But the nurses were even angrier and, on 11 October, they agreed to an indefinite strike from the following Thursday, 17 October. After voting for the strike, thousands took to the streets and rallied outside White’s office. RANF secretary Barbara Carson warned, ‘I think the government has been indifferent to the RANF and the nurses have said, "Here’s what we feel about that."’
Negotiations continued but got no further so, from 17 October, nurses across the state walked, leaving only skeleton staffing behind. They picketed hospitals, handout out leaflets to passers-by, collected money. The general feeling was that it was now or never. Most had never been on strike before, and the media called them industrially naive, but it was quite the contrary. Wendy, a student nurse at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, explained: ‘Nurses’ conditions were so bad because people haven’t fought to change them. But now nurses have changed. In the strike they’re learning a lot about government tactics and union power.’
David White and the media claimed patients would die and conducted a misinformation campaign, and there were threats to hold up the national wage case. The strikers were not intimidated. ‘Patients’ lives were endangered before all of this,’ said another Royal Melbourne student. ‘There was no proper care because of lack of staff and supervision.’ A placard: ‘Overworked nurses: under-cared-for patients’ said it all.
This time the HEF officials did not back the strike. However, rank and file workers at many hospitals were openly supportive. HEF members at Prince Henry’s met and voted not to cross picket lines. Unfortunately the nurses didn’t set them up, precisely for that reason.
The strike ended after five days with only a partial victory. The government’s offer on staffing ratios was vague but they did agree to co-operate with the RANF on admissions and discharges. But lower level nurses would get no increases ¾ they would have to wait for arbitration. A number of nurses at the final mass meeting called this a sellout; they did not share the officials’ confidence in ‘neutral umpires’. But the main thing was that they had learned to strike. They would put this experience to good use in 1986.
Build-up to confrontation
1986 began quietly, but there were a few rumblings. In February, Traralgon nurses struck over staff shortages, but were sold out by the combined efforts of the RANF and Trades Hall Council leadership. In an ill-considered measure, the Cain government took steps to recruit hundreds of English and Irish nurses at a cost of $6 million. RANF fears that this would mean that the government would not tackle such issues as pay, childcare, car parking and security were swept aside by White. But then, when the government did delay, the union decided to take action over the overseas recruitment. Bans were put on taking nurses from England, and the government was presented with a list of demands about their employment.
In a further attempt to paper over the growing cracks in the system, the government set up working parties at two of the worst-affected hospitals, Royal Melbourne and the Alfred, to recommend ways of improving working conditions. But the real issues, staffing and wages, could not be resolved by individual hospitals and so the proposed changes were bound to have little or no impact. The Age later commented:
The message in most public hospital annual reports is the same: 1985-86 was a disaster in terms of the number of patients treated, industrial relations, staff morale and finances. The reports ... directly or indirectly express anger at the State government’s health priorities, detail the effects of bed closures, spell out the cuts forced on services.
Most nurses were still pinning their hopes on the State Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) hearings on wages and career structures, which had resulted from their industrial action in October 1985. On 20 June they apparently got what they wanted, wage rises through a changed career structure. There were, however, two immediate problems. Firstly the bulk of nurses, trainee and first year graduate nurses, would get nothing. Secondly, White seemed to be shifting his position on backdating. According to the Financial Review, the government and the IRC thought the RANF ‘would be obliged to accept such a generous decision even though its more junior members got nothing out of it.’ But nurses, and their newly elected militant leader Irene Bolger, thought differently.
Within five days of the decision, the union and the government were on a collision course. The issue was backdating pay rises. The private hospitals were refusing to pay up, so RANF members across the state put bans on. White then threatened not to backdate state-employed nurses’ pay unless they stopped their campaign, but Irene Bolger refused to back down. ‘I can’t give any commitment which would be selling my members down the drain.’
With continuing bans and RANF threats to strike, the government retreated by the end of the month. But three days into the July, the RANF and the government were back in the IRC over differences in the reclassification and qualification allowances. Under the June agreement, the RANF and hospitals had to make submissions to the Health Department outlining their proposals for the coverage of each of the new grades. It became clear at this stage that the government intended placing most nurses in the lowest grades. One of the picketers at Preston and Northcote Hospital (PANCH) who had sixteen years experience along with three certificates, and was in the process of completing a university degree, suddenly found herself classed at the lowest Grade One level. Her story was repeated across the State.
The second problem was with qualification allowances. Even before the June agreement was reached, RANF organiser John Kotsifas was warning that the government intended cutting out the qualification allowance (extra payments for skills gained with special training certificates). The government and Health Department continued to deny this but, as soon as the June agreement was made, qualification allowances were cut at a number of hospitals. This meant many nurses had their overall pay cut, and some were demoted into the bargain. So within days of lifting the bans on elective surgery, nurses at four major hospitals re-imposed them. By the end of July bans were on in six hospitals and there was talk again of strike action. Bolger warned that nurses were increasingly frustrated about the delays.
Then the IRC dropped its bombshell: on 7 August it formally abolished the qualification allowance. ‘We put in for a wage rise,’ said one organiser, ‘and we got a wage cut.’ White published figures purporting to show that no nurse would lose money, but RANF members knew differently. In fact one hospital had even backdated the cuts to 1 January and was demanding repayment.
A stopwork meeting on 14 August was angry, but still the nurses held back on strike action. Bans on elective admissions and wearing uniforms, operative from 20 August, were still the strategy. The meeting did endorse a log of claims which included pay rises for junior nurses. Two hospitals, the Alfred and Austin, put on additional bans on overseas recruits. Tension was rising, newspaper editorials thundered that nurses could not be allowed the right to decide on patient admissions. Finally management began standing nurses down, despite the fact there was no stand down clause in the award. The IRC threatened not to pass on the 2.3% national wage rise while they were taking industrial action.
The bans remained and by 29 August seventy-eight nurses had been stood down. However they did not just meekly accept the stand-downs. Where they could they kept working, or took management on. At the Eye and Ear many called in sick the day after a union delegate was stood down. Management had to close three wards and run others themselves. At Leongatha nurses took a tea break following a stand down and did not return until the manager reconsidered his decision. At the Austin, three managers tried to stand over nurses, but in the first ward they entered RANF members formed a human barricade around a colleague targeted for a stand down. The angriest reaction came from St Vincent’s where 150 resigned in response to eight stand-downs.
Two weeks after putting the bans on, another stop work meeting was held. 3500 nurses resolved to maintain the bans until the employers agreed to their claims. The motion also demanded immediate reinstatement without loss of pay or privileges for all those stood down. Motions calling for White’s resignation, calling for mass resignations, and for twenty-four and forty-eight hour strikes were put, but defeated. Nurses still weren’t ready for all out strike action. However, after the mass meeting, nurses at eight metropolitan hospitals began their own discussions of the mass resignation tactic.
In the face of the nurses’ determination, the government and the IRC agreed to pay nurses who had been stood down. The union leaders then recommended lifting the bans at a 5 September mass meeting, and negotiations resumed. The talks dragged on through September and into the following month, finally collapsing on 24 October. White and the Health Department were determined most staff would be downgraded, to contain the wages bill. The RANF was just as determined to win wage rises.
The strike begins
Trying to work within the system finally came to an end when 5,000 nurses thronged to a 31 October stopwork, overwhelmingly endorsing a rank and file motion to go out indefinitely. Critical care units were still staffed and all wards had skeleton staff. A nurse from PANCH said, ‘We had to do something, the government just keeps breaking promises.’ Calls for a total walkout were defeated, but nurses reinforced their message with a noisy march through the city.
The next day, 1 November, most metropolitan hospitals were picketed although, for the first days, no goods were stopped. On the picket lines nurses met many well-wishers. Encouragement to ‘toot in support’ resulted in continuous honking of car horns outside hospitals. Food, firewood and money poured in, and letters and telegrams backing the RANF overloaded Australia Post’s deliveries to RANF headquarters in St Kilda. Workplace meetings and collections took place across Victoria and interstate, support coming from blue and white-collar unions as well as from many rank and file HEF members.
The strike itself, while not completely in the hands of the rank and file, was often effectively run by the militants. When the people taking the action are the ones planning strike tactics, it strengthens their resolve. The strike committee met daily at the RANF offices to work out tactics and go over experiences. To ensure the members and other workers got the facts regularly, the union ran a program on community radio station 3CR and put out a daily strike bulletin. To maintain morale and solidarity, the strikers held regular picket line barbecues and sporting competitions, as well as fundraisers and an occasional champagne breakfast. Groups of nurses toured the country regions every day, building support and keeping country members informed. The RANF representative at Wimmera Base Hospital commented, ‘I’ve never seen nurses so united and strong.’
Unlike many other unions, the RANF leaders backed rank and file decisions. The delegate at Epworth Hospital said, ‘Irene is our employee. We tell her what to do.’ Nicola, a first year graduate at Western General, related an experience from earlier in the dispute. ‘Two months ago we decided on mass resignations. Irene thought it wasn’t a particularly good strategy. But we did it anyway. After we went to her she said she’d support us 100%.’ As a result of this commitment to carrying out decisions of the rank and file, Irene Bolger got standing ovations at most of the mass meetings.
Nurses faced many personal traumas. Many cried as they walked out, and had nightmares afterwards. Often when they were on the picket line they’d slip in the back way to visit patients they’d nursed. A charge sister remarked, ‘It’s been horrible for the past twelve months, but I think unity has come out of it.’
The government refused to budge for weeks. Cain threatened the union with everything from manslaughter charges to deregistration and the Essential Services Act ¾ threats which couldn’t be lightly disregarded, as his government had joined in moves to deregister and destroy the militant Builders Labourers Federation. The main concern behind the bluster and intimidation was maintaining the constraints of arbitration and the ALP/ACTU Accord. Cain and White weren’t primarily afraid of the financial cost of an RANF victory; it was the political cost of any agreement reached after direct union action outside the system that made him so intransigent. As Ken Howard, a federal RANF industrial officer put it:
A breakthrough by the nurses, or rather a breakout from the straitjacket of the arbitration system and the Accord would have had tremendous significance for all workers.
As the government wouldn’t negotiate, nurses started to escalate the action. From 1 November they walked out of all but critical care wards, hospital by hospital. Pickets began to stop non-essential supplies to the wards, and were backed by Transport Workers’ Union drivers. Cain responded by announcing that police would be used to break the pickets.
While relations between the RANF and HEF at some hospitals were good, with strong rank and file support, the HEF leadership publicly sided with the government. Secretary Les Butler instructed his members to cross picket lines. At hospitals like the Royal Melbourne most of the members did, but at Prince Henry’s, Queen Victoria and Western General, among others, they refused. HEF meetings at Prince Henry’s agreed not to touch any goods brought in by scabs, and threatened a total walkout if police intervened. If anything, according to Les Taylor, the HEF chief shop steward, the strike brought the two unions even closer at this hospital.
The Trades Hall Council leadership played as despicable a role as the HEF officials. Secretary Peter March began by claiming he didn’t want to take responsibility for assisting the strike because it affected the health industry. That didn’t stop him from trying the very next day to force the RANF to hand over the dispute to Trades Hall. He patronizingly told nurses they needed help because they could no longer handle the dispute. Louise Ajani from Western General retorted, ‘basically we don’t think Trades Hall are acting in our interests.’ 1500 strikers personally delivered that message to Trades Hall at a rally on 7 November. Chanting ‘No Trades Hall Interference!’, a contingent stormed a health unions’ meeting and saw to it that delegates voted against the intervention and supported the nurses.
By 19 November, forty hospitals were hit by the strike and building unions were threatening to impose bans. The IRC finally backed down from its refusal to arbitrate while the nurses were still out, and called private talks with all parties on 21 November.
It was to no avail. The government believed the nurses would go back, and they were hoping ACTU intervention would put them in their place. The RANF Federal Council rejected ACTU control, although talks continued between the two organizations. The ACTU, while supporting the nurses’ claims ‘in principle’, tried its best to undermine their position in practice. Its president, Simon Crean personally attacked the union for its action on several occasions. He accused them of ‘demanding more than was justified’, and told them they should return to work. Irene Bolger hit back with the blunt reply: ‘Simon Crean should keep his mouth shut. He doesn’t know what is going on.’
On 8 December, the RANF again escalated the action. Nurses began walking out of critical care wards. This latest move was based partly on nurses’ own demands and a similar experience in Canada, which had brought the government to the negotiating table in seven minutes. However it was not that easy in Victoria. Unlike in Canada, the Victorian walkout didn’t involve all hospitals. Even by this stage, 50 per cent of hospital beds were still available, mostly through the private hospital system. And it was here that an important weakness emerged in the union’s industrial campaign.
Fresh from the daily picket line reps’ meeting, the member at PANCH announced the walkout. But when asked what nurses were going to do if the government didn’t respond, she replied, ‘Not work? It has to work.’ Having played their trump card, they had no strategy to continue building the strike if it failed.
And the government did refuse to negotiate, even after nurses left critical care wards. In fact, three days later, White escalated the dispute by announcing the government would instruct State Enrolled Nurses (SENs) to do the nurses work. The necessary legislation would be rushed through parliament. In this the leaderships of the Australian Medical Association and the HEF assisted him. Les Butler of the HEF said he had no objection to his members doing work usually carried out by RANF members. ‘As far as we are concerned it should have been done yesterday.’
However, this time the government had finally overstepped the mark. The RANF called national meetings to plan action over the use of SENs, with support likely from the more militant New South Wales and Queensland associations. Butler would probably also have been faced with widespread refusal by SENs to scab, led by hospitals like Prince Henry’s. Queen Victoria HEF members had already openly refused to obey union directives on the picket line, and there was flak from the union’s interstate branches. In the ACT, for example, the HEF had joined forces with the RANF over staffing and wage demands, and had publicly supported the Victorian RANF from the beginning. An important, but little-publicized factor was that SENs, in a reversal of previous trends, had begun to leave the HEF and join the RANF. They were actually out on strike themselves.
While the Cain government did not publicly back down on the SENs until 17 December, the only real weapon it now had left was the ACTU. With the IRC opening up a loophole for ACTU intervention, the government was able to manoeuvre itself out of its dead-end position. After lengthy discussions, the RANF and ACTU finally agreed on a joint case to be put to the Commission on 15 December. The RANF had made some concessions, but the ACTU had agreed to all its major claims. Or at least, that’s what they told the union. But when presenting the case, the ACTU’s Jenny Acton started backtracking. When Irene Bolger tried to stop her, she accused the RANF of being ‘unable to understand the difference between substantial and total agreement’. But RANF members and their leadership understood the ACTU’s treachery only too well. Irene Bolger reported to that afternoon’s stopwork: ‘There is nothing joint about the proposal ¾ it is now just the ACTU proposal. I think we have been sold out.’ The nurses stayed out and the ACTU got the message, changing its position to one of total agreement with the RANF.
Two days before the strike ended, White publicly withdrew the threat to use SENs. The RANF sent its members back to the critical care wards. But still the government wouldn’t agree to the RANF/ACTU package. Irene Bolger held firm: ‘It’s not enough for an agreement in principle because we don’t trust him [David White] and our members don’t trust him. He needs to agree to the whole package.’ Finally on 19 December, White, on behalf of the Cain government, agreed to the ‘whole package’ and the nurses went back. A week later The Australian said of the nurses’ victory:
Despite all the posturing ... the nurses did prove themselves strong enough industrially to make significant gains. It took five weeks of strike, but the government did finally agree its $54.7m allocation under the June award was insufficient.
The nurses’ strike stood out as a victory in a time of working class defeat. Union organisation had been smashed at Robe River, at Mudginberri and in the Queensland power industry, and State and Federal Labor governments along with the ACTU leadership were in the process of smashing the militant Builders’ Labourers Federation (BLF). The nurses showed it was possible to win.
The Hawke government had come to power on the basis of its Accord with the union bureaucracy. While the Accord was presented as a program in the interests of workers, in practice it was designed to cut wages and boost company profits while making it harder for unionists to fight back. At the same time, Labor governments at both State and federal levels were carrying out budget cuts. As part of this, health spending in Victoria had been cut in real terms every year since 1982-83. As a building worker from the Riverside Quay construction site commented, ‘Cain spent $40 million to destroy the BLF. He should have used it to fix up the hospital system.’
The government planned to cut bed numbers, pushing more people into the private health system. It also planned to restructure the nursing profession in ways that would cut costs at workers’ expense and make union organization more difficult. In other words, the nurses were facing a very determined opponent. There was also strong speculation among informed participants that the HEF had given the government some sort of promise to undermine the nurses in exchange for increased coverage. The HEF leaders were worried that they might be next in line for deregistration after the BLF, and it is possible some agreement was reached on this issue too.
Yet the nurses succeeded, which boosted other workers’ confidence. They gave the Industrial Relations Commission short shrift; a lesson also not lost on other unionists. Irene Bolger commented that most nurses considered it ‘a bit of a kangaroo court’, and the nurses forced the Commission to back down on every issue. They also exposed the ACTU’s double-dealing and forced it to support them.
The strike also challenged conventional ideas among the nurses themselves. For example they generally accepted what the media said about the BLF, even after the RANF began to get some of the same treatment. Some of them even asked BLF members to leave one rally. But as Builders Labourers continued to support the pickets and the strike, attitudes began to change. A nurse at the Queen Victoria said, ‘I feel so guilty. I never supported the BLF. I never went and talked to anyone about what was going on. I just believed what I read.’
Nurses initially had faith in the police, and the police did their best to encourage this faith. Commissioner Mick Miller even told White he could not count on police to break the pickets. But the pretence ended about half way through the dispute. Without warning, fifty police dragged picketers at the Royal Melbourne across a gravel roadway, bruising and choking them. Twice they escorted linen vans through the picket. The government probably hoped this would demoralise the strikers just before a key mass meeting. It failed, but it showed where the police stood in a crunch.
Arguments about losing public support are often used to discourage public sector workers from taking industrial action. Nurses are a prime target. Throughout their strike, however, despite government and media attacks, public support for the RANF stayed around 75-80 per cent. When they finally walked out of critical care, public opinion appeared to shift somewhat. But according to Bolger, the support for their demands was still solid. More people simply thought they should return to work and that the government should give them what they wanted.
Among nurses themselves, the benefits of unionism became clearer. Union membership climbed steadily during the dispute. One organiser quipped, ‘Every time David White opens his mouth, another 200 nurses join the RANF.’ But it was mainly the union’s own actions which won their allegiance. Julie Watts from St Vincent’s said, ‘It’s terrific really. I feel very strongly that this is the best move nurses have made for their profession and health care.’ As well as laying to rest the bogey of public opinion, the dispute also put another nail in the coffin of the myth of women’s passivity. The Sun reported:
As if anyone needed further proof of the radicalization of Florence Nightingale there it was at Olympic Park yesterday ¾ a T-shirt pledging allegiance to ‘Irene Bolger’s Nurses’ Liberation Front’. Even among the poor pun placards attacking ‘White Lies’ and ‘White Slavery’ and the buoyant almost pep rally atmosphere of the packed mass meeting, there was little doubt the striking nurses were going to hang tough. At times, between the laughter and cheering, you could even hear talk of solidarity and the workers’ struggle.
Newspapers commented that no male unionist would have been subject to the same campaign of innuendo and smear tactics, implying that all the attacks on Irene Bolger were sexist. While there was a sexist edge to some of the abuse, in fact militant unionists generally were being subjected to equally savage attacks, especially the BLF.
A number of union leaderships held back from supporting the strike because of their allegiance to the ALP/ACTU Accord. The Accord meant demobilizing the union ranks. If they called action in support of the RANF, union officials might find their members asking: if we can strike for the nurses, why not strike for our own demands?
While the union officials held back, their members often showed great enthusiasm for the nurses’ cause. Employees at the Ford Broadmeadows car plant said that if the nurses in the medical centre set up a picket line they wouldn’t cross it. LaTrobe Valley power workers threatened to pull the plug on the State’s electricity supply and seventeen local union branches met to discuss action, but the union leadership headed them off. Electricians banned work on hospital lifts, while building workers and wharfies levied themselves and held workplace meetings. They also held a one-day stoppage and marched through the city. TWU members refused to cross picket lines, and one thousand unionists braved a torrential downpour to attend a lunchtime solidarity rally. Many others collected money, visited picket lines, delivered food. Had the RANF called openly for solidarity action, these individual and sometimes spontaneous actions could have been turned into a mass solidarity movement.
The key to this would have been the HEF, whose members were used to break picket lines for linen and coal delivery. Because the HEF continued to work on the wards, and work with ‘volunteers’, the hospital could continue functioning. There were strong indications that rank and file HEF members at a number of hospitals would have been prepared to defy their leadership and walk out in support of the nurses. At Prince Henry’s, they offered support from the beginning. Les Taylor, chief HEF shop steward, said that his members ‘wanted to take more action than they did. If the RANF branch in the hospital had approach us we would have taken direct action.’
Taylor indicated several other hospitals would have gone out as well. While admitting it would have been hard to build up from there, he said he felt that HEF support would have brought the government to the negotiating table much sooner. It would also have built up solidarity at the rank and file level between the two unions, whose relations had been bitter at many hospitals. As the response from other unions to the attempted use of paid ‘volunteers’ (strikebreakers) indicated, the nurses could have called for more militant action from other hospital workers. Nurses in other States could also have been approached to take solidarity action. As it was, interstate nurses were only asked to give money.
Irene Bolger later argued that spreading the dispute was ‘not feasible’ and that the Victorian branch had no option but to go it alone. Certainly there would have been difficulties. The fragmented nature of the union militated against it, and the Accord had undermined traditions of union solidarity. New South Wales nurses received a relatively generous pay rise during the Victorian dispute, a move surely calculated to stem any support for the Victorian nurses and to bolster the right wing executive of the New South Wales Branch. Even so, Victorian RANF members could have toured interstate and laid the basis for support action. Touring country regions of their own State had been important in building support.
Despite the problems, the nurses’ strike showed the power of solidarity at the rank and file level, not only among the strikers but in the working class as a whole. It showed how a predominantly female group of workers could sustain mass industrial action, and give a lead to other workers of both sexes. Like the other rebel women who appear in this book, their story offers an inspiring alternative to conventional women’s history.