Thousands of nurses and midwives went on strike across NSW on Thursday. This was the second industrial action organised by NSW nurses in as many months, demanding better work conditions and pay.
The biggest protest was held in Sydney, where approximately 5000 people gathered outside the Supreme Court before marching up Macquarie Street to NSW Parliament House. Protestors held signs reading “we are not coping,” and “stop gaslighting us.” Around 20 smaller rallies were held in regional locations around NSW.
Many participating healthcare workers walked off the job for 24 hours. Over 180 branches of the NSW Nurses & Midwives Association (NSWNMA) voted in favour of strike action, of which 160 participated in the 24-hour strike. The protest was held in defiance of a strike ban obtained by NSW Health from the IRC.
Thursday’s strike follows a similar protest 6 weeks ago. NSWNMA organised industrial action in mid-February to demand “serious issues” in the healthcare sector be addressed. However, the union has heard no offers of negotiation from the NSW government since meeting with Premier Perrottet on the 21st of February.
Chronic Understaffing in Healthcare
Nurses and midwives are demanding set nurse-to-patient ratios, improved maternity staffing and a 4.75% pay rise. An allowance for regional and rural nurses is also in the cards.
The healthcare sector has been crippled by understaffing for some time, with the situation only deteriorating as case numbers rise. As of the 28th of March, almost 4,300 NSW Health staff were isolating following COVID exposure. In Wagga Wagga, protesting staff complained, “there are 55 vacancies in the hospital at Wagga at the moment, on average, there’s 20 to 25 nurses short per day.”
Understaffing is obviously an issue for patients, meaning many can’t receive sufficient and timely care for their conditions. But in many ways, staff bear deeper consequences. Nurses are run to exhaustion by overwhelming numbers of patients. Karen Hart, a nurse of 20 years, says she “can’t remember a time where I haven’t done 95 hours in a fortnight doing up to 18 hour shifts, there’s no other industries that allow staff to do 18 hour shifts.”
Constantly being forced to decide which patients get treated and which ones must wait also leaves many nurses with ethics fatigue. As put by Kelly Falconer, co-president of NSWNMA’s Wyoming branch, it’s excruciating “to have to say to a dying patient, I know you need me but I just need to go and see someone else.”
NSWNMA General Secretary Brett Holmes underscored that nurse-to-patient ratios were the union’s key demand. A pay rise would not be enough to compromise on other demands, he warned. Staff-to-patient ratios have already been mandated in Victoria and Queensland, and promised by the new Labor government in South Australia.
The union says they will strike “again and again” if the government refuses to negotiate with them on their demands. Nurses say nothing has changed since their last strike, and “the serious issues they are raising shift after shift [are] falling on deaf ears.”
Mr Holmes says, “What nurses and midwives are asking for is not unreasonable. We’re simply calling on the government to prioritise patient care and commit to a safe staffing model with a guaranteed minimum number of nurses and midwives on every shift.”
Cover image and embedded photo courtesy of USYD Women’s Collective. Instagram: @usydwoco
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