Woman Bolger, Irene

Barrister and Trade unionist

Written by James Tierney and Christina Cregan, The University of Melbourne

Irene Bolger joined the Alfred Hospital in 1968. She worked as a nurse and then as a nurse educator in the School of Nursing until 1983. During this time she was a member of the Socialist Left faction of the Australian Labor Party. Observing that there was effectively no industrial action or collective consciousness amongst nurses, she joined the Royal Australian Nursing Federation (Victorian Branch) as an Organiser in 1983. Bolger ran unsuccessfully against Barbara Carson in 1985 in the elections for Branch Secretary, but was elected Branch Secretary following Carson's resignation in May 1986. She had attained this position on the basis of her commitment to forging union solidarity and encouraging industrial action. In August 1986, she contributed an editorial to the Australian Nurses Journal entitled 'Unity Brings Change', stating that in order for nurses to obtain tangible improvements in working conditions, the union needed to recruit 'industrially aware nurses into Branch Office', ensuring a 'common feeling of unity and purpose by all Branch staff' (Ellinghaus, p. 14).

Bolger was Branch Secretary in 1986 when ANF members voted to strike. On 30 October 1986, an estimated 5000 nurses attended the Melbourne Sports and Entertainment Centre and voted overwhelmingly to commence an indefinite strike the following day. Elective surgery admissions were ceased and a skeleton staff was maintained in wards requiring intensive nursing. The RANF lodged a log of claims featuring 20 grievances against the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) June award, demanding wage increases, reinstatement of qualification allowances, reclassification of nursing grades and withdrawal of demotions. Contrary to all expectations, the strike lasted for 50 days, capturing the public's interest and radically altering the way nurses were viewed in Victoria, both professionally and industrially. Bolger led the strike but represented the wishes of the rank-and-file. As one member, Nicola Jamieson, said at the time: 'Two months ago we decided on a mass resignation. 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 per cent' (Age, 12 November 1986).

Bolger characterised her leadership style as a 'war-time Secretary'. This description was confirmed by Belinda Morieson who became Branch Secretary after Bolger's departure from the union. Her primary aim was the development and maintenance of support for the strike in order to bring about state government and IRC acknowledgement of the log of claims. As the strike progressed, nurses faced increasing hostility from government, health associations, the media and even the Australian Council of Trade Unions. In December 1986, the IRC stated that it would arbitrate the dispute, provided the nurses returned to work. The members, however, voted not to return and Bolger remained steadfast: 'We can only go back [to work] on the basis of agreements and resolution of the problems. It's up to the nurses to make up their minds … But as I walk around the picket lines the nurses are saying they won't go back' (Age, 8 November 1986). When walk-outs from critical care facilities eventually took place, Bolger stated: '[T]hey have every right to do whatever they wish to bring this matter to a resolution. If it means they have to walk out of those areas to do that then that is what they will do and I support them in that' (Age, 9 December 1986). Yet nurses were becoming stressed, both emotionally and financially. Many 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. On 19 December, following an increased offer from the state government, members voted to return to work. While not wholly satisfactory, the IRC award issued in January 1987 implemented the new nursing career structure sought by the union and provided substantial wage gains.

During the strike, Bolger forged a reputation as a militant leader, and an inspirational public speaker. She believed that during this period, the 'union took a sharp turn to the left' (Interview). Union officials interviewed in 2009 credited Bolger with developing an industrial consciousness in the Branch and also amongst members and nurses in general. As Lisa Fitzpatrick described: [The strike] would have happened without her. I believe -- but I don't know -- that it would have had the same support. I think … she was very charismatic and I felt that nurses either loved her or hated her. But I think the majority had a respect for her because she was doing something' (Colson, p. 75). As Elizabeth Grigg, former Victorian Branch Assistant Secretary describes, 'not many people would have been able to pull off what Irene did in terms of … enabling or facilitating nurses to feel that it was the right thing to do to go on strike. At a psychological level it was an extraordinary thing to have done (Colson, p. 76).

Fitzpatrick believes that the 1986 strike was a major catalyst in shifting the internal focus of the Branch from servicing to organising. Bolger laid the organisational foundations for the later establishment of the organising model in a strong professional-industrial union. On taking office, she increased Branch staff to look after the interests of members. From 1985 to 1987, numbers rose from 19 to 35, with industrial staff increasing from 5 to 11 (Australian Nursing Federation 1988-9, p. 6). She developed the central role of job representatives. Fitzpatrick stated: 'Job reps came to the fore during the '86 strike … that started the organising character of the Branch' (Interview). Organisers were explicitly taught industrial strategy and how to 'whip up' support for industrial action amongst members. They were required to report in writing to Bolger, and were assessed on how many new members they could sign. InfoLine was established - whereby nurses could call the Branch directly - on the recommendation of consultants who reported that the Branch 'would be best served if the service was provided by an Information Officer who possesses nursing qualifications, in order to provide professional and industrial advice' (Australian Nursing Federation 1987-8, p. 4).

The strike, however, left deep divisions within the union. In the 1989 election for Secretary, Bolger was narrowly beaten by Belinda Morieson. During Bolger's tenure, membership peaked at 21,418 in 1986, only to drop to 15,712 in 1989, following her departure. Bolger has never returned to the Branch. She completed a law degree at the University of Melbourne and currently works as a barrister, primarily representing underprivileged clients.

Additional sources: Australian Nursing Federation (Victorian Branch), Annual Report 1987 - 1988; Australian Nursing Federation (Victorian Branch), Annual Report 1988 - 1989; Interview with Lisa Fitzpatrick, December 22nd 2009, personal property of authors; Interview with Irene Bolger, December 23rd 2009, personal property of authors.

Published Resources


  • Colson, Ilsa, More than just the money: 100 years of the Victorian Nurses Union, Prowling Tiger Press, Victoria, 2001. Details

Journal Articles

  • Tierney, James and Cregan,Christina, 'Strategy and Structure in a Successful Organising Union: The Transformational Role of Branch Secretaries in the Australian Nursing Federation, Victorian Branch, 1989-2009', Labour History, vol. 104, May 2013, pp. 149-168. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5263/labourhistory.104.0149. Details

Newspaper Articles

  • Davis, Mark, 'Commission condemns nurse union's leaders', The Age, 9 December 1986, p. 1. Details
  • Davis, Mark and Menagh, Catherine, 'Nurses to decide today on strike', The Age, 8 November 1986, p. 1. Details
  • Hutton, Barbara, 'Revolution in our Hospitals', The Age, 12 November 1986, p. 12. Details


  • Ellinghaus, Katherine, 'The Radicalisation of Florence Nightingale: The Victorian Nurses' Strike of 1986', BAHons thesis, The University of Melbourne, 1995. Details

Online Resources

Digital Resources

Irene Bolger talks about media perceptions of women in power
Audio Visual
National Film and Sound Archive