Nurse Cheryl Hanham says she ready to strike for the third time in her 30 plus years of nursing if that’s what it takes to “future proof” the career she loves.
The Christchurch neonatal nurse and Canterbury regional chair of the New Zealand Nurses Organisation was one of up to 600 nurses and supporters rallying outside Christchurch Hospital today getting plenty of ‘tooting’ support for their call for better pay and staffing for nurses.
Hundreds of others were gathering in rallies being held today from Whangarei to Dunedin as the fortnight of action in NZNO’s #healthneedsnursing campaign stepped up a notch. The campaign follows NZNO’s district health board nurses, midwives and healthcare assistants last month voting to reject the 20 DHBs’ pay offer as falling short of making up for underfunding and understaffing in the health system. A ballot on strike action is likely to be launched next week but at the same time an independent panel is being set up to try and resolve the pay impasse and stop the risk of nurses striking this winter.
Hanham said 34 years on she wouldn’t change her career choice with nursing not only being rewarding work but providing great camaraderie and a wide variety of job options. But at present she said under-investment in nursing meant unsafe staffing levels – with not enough nurses to cover for illnesses and injuries or to safely nurse today’s patients with their complex co-morbidities.
“Safe staffing is not just about numbers but also ensuring that nurses are safe in their workplaces with certainly our mental health nurses sometimes going to work in fear…” said Hanham. “And yes we also need a pay rise as people are leaving in droves to go to Australia.”
She said a neonatal nurse with her level of experience would be earning $20,000 to $30,000 more across the Tasman and while she realistically did not expect to close that gap in one hit the feeling out there was that “2 per cent is not going to cut it.”
Hanham said she first took strike action in her 20s in the late 1980s and again in 2001 during a Christchurch Hospital strike and nurses had been very organised to ensure patient safety with doctors also very supportive on those occasions. She said it was always hard to walk out on patients but nurses across the country had reached ‘tipping point’. And if the membership wanted to take strike action then she was ready to strike again to help future proof nursing within the health system.
Whether the Panel process could lead to an offer that nurses could accept, without striking, would be up to how much the Government was ready to invest in nursing, believed Hanham. She said she got that there were many ‘big asks’ on the Government’s coffers at present – including repairing Middlemore Hospital – but she added you couldn’t have hospitals without staff and many nurses were leaving because of the working conditions and pay.
If strike action does go ahead it is likely to be in early winter because of the time needed to hold a strike ballot and to give DHBs and NZNO time to prepare cover for when nurses walking off the job. Asked about the timing of the strike Hanham, who is also on the NZNO board, pointed out the two parties began negotiating last June and if members vote in favour of strike action then “that’s what we will do”.