The Coordination and Exacerbation of the Strike
Following the breakdown of negotiations between the parties regarding amendments to the career structure in the June award, on 30 October 1986, nurses voted overwhelmingly to strike. Elective surgery admissions were ceased and skeleton staff was maintained in wards requiring intensive nursing. The RANF lodged a log of claims featuring 20 grievances with the June award that required rectification, including wage increases, particularly for Grade 1 and student nurses, reinstatement of qualification allowances, reclassification of nursing grades and withdrawal of demotions. After the Registered Nurses Conciliation and Arbitration Board failed to resolve the dispute, on 4 November, nurses at the Western General Hospital voted to become the first nurses to walk out entirely, leaving no skeleton staff except for critical care nurses. Over the next six days, a further 18 hospitals voted for total walkouts. The RANF refused to allow nurses at the Peter MacCullum Cancer Institute, Fairfield Hospital or Royal Children’s Hospital to walk out.
As the strike progressed, nurses faced increasingly hostility from the Government, health associations and the media. On 3 November, Premier John Cain threatened to invoke the Essential Services Act 1958, providing police with the power to break picket lines, force nurses back to work, and arrest those nurses who refused. Cain warned that any nurses that continued to strike faced stand downs, sackings, or action “far more serious than sacking”. On November 6, Cain gave a two-minute television address, describing the RANF leaders as “dogmatic and uncompromising”:
“I’m now appealing to nurses to think again about their action. I urge nurses to meet their obligations and put patients first. Stay at work and have the disputed claims sorted out through arbitration – that is the proper and long-accepted process for resolving industrial disputes. Now it is time for nurses to give a little.” (Bowen and Everill)
The strike was coordinated through a strike action committee, which met daily at the RANF offices to work out tactics and go over experiences. The committee comprised RANF operational staff and two or three senior Job Reps from each major hospital. To ensure the members and other workers got the facts regularly, the union ran a program on community radio station 3CR, the “Stick Together Show”, 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. By 13 November, the RANF strike fund had raised $200,000 from working members, other unions and members of the public. Groups of nurses toured the country regions every day, building support and keeping country members informed. (Ross) As Irene Bolger explained:
“We had to plan it carefully, and get this big build-up, as much for the nurses as for the publicity. So when we decided, well, this hospital’s going to walk out on this particular day…we would organise people from other hospitals to come along and be there, and be very supportive, and clap them and cheer them, and give them hugs or whatever they needed.” (Ellinghaus, 20)
Despite the efforts to maintain morale and support, nurses were soon becoming strained, both emotionally and financially. Many nurses were relying on financial support from family members and the strike fund in order to pay their bills. They were also coping with the guilt of having walked out on sick patients. As Isabell Collins describes:
“During [those] 50 days, people lost their houses, people lost their cars. Some people didn’t have enough money to feed their kids. They were bringing their kids to the picket line to get food…. We walked out on patients for 50 days, no matter how many times you went back in there to have a look and see if they were all right, we walked out on them. And I think many of us, including myself, were absolutely and utterly consumed with terrible guilt when we went back…I think it took me 18 months to recover.” (Ellinghaus, 78)
The sense of guilt and neglect for their moral obligation that nurses felt was also a pervasive feature of the strike, both in striking and non-striking nurses. A number of nurses either resigned their membership or chose not to strike, as “conscientious objectors”, as is evidenced by their letters to the RANF:
“I agree there is a lot wrong with nursing as a profession. But good or bad, I am a nurse and I will not jeopardise the lives of the people I have sworn to serve.”
“The request to walk off the job and abandon patients is morally unacceptable. I ask , therefore, given that I am a conscientious objector to abandoning patients, should I resign from the RANF of which I have been a member for a great many years?” (Ellinghaus, 29)
Between the 10th and the 16th of November, there was a total walkout of RANF members from a further 13 hospitals, including the Alfred, Dandenong Hospital, and regional hospitals like Geelong, Kyneton and Gippsland Base Hospital. There had now been total walkouts at 32 different Victorian hospitals, and the Red Cross Blood Bank (Fox 84). As noted by Carol Fox, the walkout at the Alfred Hospital was significant in relation to how the public perceived striking nurses:
“Historically, the Alfred has been a prestigious training hospital for student nurses from predominantly middle-class backgrounds. This was hardly, to use the government’s imagery, a ratbag Socialist Left mob.” (Fox)
On the 11th of November, the IRC threatened that if nurses remained on strike, it would arbitrate without hearing submissions from the RANF on the merits of the nurses’ claims. The striking nurses again voted to remain on strike until their claims were satisfactorily negotiated, demanding that the IRC “fairly discharge its legal obligations as a publicly perceived independent conciliator of industrial matters and not as an instrument of the government’s self-assumed industrial penal powers.” (Birnbauer) On 22 November, the Commission rescinded this ultimatum and sought to convene private talks between the parties.
As private negotiations began, a dispute broke out between the RANF leadership and the Australian Council of Trade Unions, which had become involved in the negotiations. Irene Bolger was concerned the ACTU was co-opting the nurses' strike for its own purposes, and may seek to reach an agreement with the government that was not in the best interest of the nurses. On 23 November, the RANF rejected an ACTU proposal to restructure the nurses award to bring it into line with nurses awards operating in other states. Bolger flew to Hobart to an ACTU executive meeting to urge the Council to let the RANF handle the dispute themselves. Despite Bolger’s request, the ACTU remained involved, and on 2 December, the ACTU Secretary, Bill Kelty, addressed the IRC, again seeking the implementation of an award that would bring Victoria into line with other States.
The University of Melbourne
- Fox, Carol, Enough is Enough: The 1986 Nurses' Strike, Kensington: University of New South Wales, 1991
- Ross, Liz, 'Dedication doesn't pay the rent! The 1986 Victorian nurses' strike', Hecate, vol XIII (1) 1987
- Birnbauer, Bill, Davis, Mark and Menagh, Catherine, 'Hospitals relief bid angers strikers', The Age, 12 November 1986: 1
- Ellinghaus, Katherine, 'The Radicalisation of Florence Nightingale: The Victorian Nurses' Strike of 1986', Honours Thesis, University of Melbourne, 1995