Woman Morieson, Belinda

Trade unionist

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

Belinda Morieson was Branch Secretary of the Australian Nursing Federation, Victoria Branch (ANF(Vic)) from 1989-2001. The nursing profession and its unions are female-dominated. During this period, over 90 per cent of nurses were women. Morieson oversaw the biggest membership growth in the history of the Branch. At the start of her tenure, union membership stood at 15,712. By the time she relinquished the position, it had doubled to reach 30,464 (Interview). This rise was in sharp contrast to trends in most unions in Australia and overseas where efforts to halt membership decline have been largely ineffective. She was elected unopposed for all of her terms of office.

Drawing much of her direction from rank-and-file resolutions at mass meetings of nurses, she used her personal qualities to lead Council in the development of strategies and structures that transformed the ANF(Vic) into a highly effective organising union. An organising union conducts recruitment by emphasising the role of elected job representatives in the attraction of members by involving workers in industrial action. Morieson set out to transform the ANF(Vic) through the principles of the organising model. She implemented industrial action in the form of a strategically-planned long-term series of mobilisation campaigns as a prelude to enterprise bargaining negotiations (Bartram, Stanton and Elovaris). In order to support this policy, she led Council to embark on a process of rapid transformation of the union's organisational strategies and structures.

Morieson's union career began when, as a nurse, she became an elected job representative at Prince Henry's Hospital in 1981. In 1985 she was seconded by the union to explain a new career structure to nurses across the state. Having made contacts at the ANF(Vic) through this secondment, she joined the Branch as a Professional Officer in 1986, just before the historic 1986 nurses' strike led by Irene Bolger. The nursing profession was undergoing change as formal occupational courses and qualifications were developed. Increased skill brought bargaining strength but responses from nurses were mixed. The 1986 strike brought gains for nurses but mass withdrawal of labour from hospitals split the ANF(Vic), the nursing profession, the union movement, and public opinion. The initial problem facing Morieson when she became Branch Secretary in 1989 was that, by the end of the 1980s, there were divisions among nurses about the ethics and effectiveness of strike action. In this context, Morieson articulated her role as a leader: 'Nurses have been almost systematically excluded from making an effective contribution to the direction of change … and have suffered also from a very significant lack of leadership in understanding … how the role of nursing is changing' (Victorian Hospitals Industrial Association v Australian Nursing Federation S9958, 2000). Morieson and her Council, therefore, set about bringing stability to the internal workings of the Branch, adapting the organising model to suit the growing aspirations of its largely female, middle-aged, professional membership.

First, Morieson equated industrial goals with professional goals: nurses were encouraged to view themselves as defenders of the quality of patient care. Industrial action no longer involved strikes but comprised hospital bed closures and cancellation of elective surgery. In 2000, after thousands of bed closures across the state, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission issued the 'Blair decision' whereby a mandatory nurse-patient ratio of 1:4 was imposed in all 'A' Hospitals. Commissioner Blair held that, 'where the appropriate ratio is not met, the equivalent numbers of beds are to be temporarily closed until the ratio is achieved' (Victorian Hospitals Industrial Association v Australian Nursing Federation). Subsequently, the maintenance of nurse-patient ratios became central to the ANF(Vic)'s log of claims in enterprise bargaining agreement negotiations. Further, the advancement of professional goals of nurses became located within the ANF. To this end, the ANF became a professional educational body. In 1992, the Education Unit was opened and became a registered training organisation with ongoing education programmes (Australian Nursing Federation). Morieson also encouraged the development of private professional services - available only to members - to encourage membership: in particular, indemnity insurance and legal services. 1995 saw the establishment of a branch of the law firm of Ryan Carlisle Thomas within the ANF(Vic) offices in Elizabeth St, Melbourne, allowing members easy access.

Second, Morieson encouraged the decentralisation of the union's organisational structures with the establishment of democratic, membership-based decision-making at all levels. Job representatives are central to union organising and union jobs were created to recruit, train and support this role. For example, a Training Officer and training programs were set up. The Anna Stewart Program, developed by the Australian Council of Trade Unions, gave female delegates the opportunity to experience the union working environment. The roles of industrial officers and organisers were adapted to provide support to job representatives. Morieson and her Council also established the annual ANF Delegates Conference. The first Conference took place in a small meeting room at Dallas Brooks Hall in Melbourne in 1993 and was attended by 40 job representatives.

Finally, Morieson initiated the transformation of the entire union into a recruitment and retention machine. A programme of workplace visits was established. ANF(Vic) officers visited every ward in every hospital annually. Mandatory twice-yearly visits by organisers to every workplace within their purview were introduced: 'this ensures there is a job representative at every site, creates a strong union presence, and gives nurses the chance to express workplace concerns informally …These visits … let nurses know that we're out there' (Interview). The visits provided accurate membership figures and the Branch began the practice of presenting and analysing membership numbers at every staff meeting.

Morieson's style of leadership can be described as transformational. She was an elected leader from the nursing rank-and-file. In consequence, she understood the labour market disadvantage of nurses that often originated from stereotypical attitudes where caring characteristics are associated with the domestic role of women. She represented the views of nurses intent on raising their labour market status. She has been described as a 'catalyst'. She used her personal leadership qualities to persuade Council to develop an organising union that allowed the collective aspirations of its members to be effectively operationalized, overcoming the constraints that had previously rendered many nurses passive or uncertain with regard to participation in struggle.

Additional sources: Interview with Belinda Morieson, 23 December 2009, personal property of authors.

Published Resources

Journal Articles

  • Bartram, Tim; Stanton, Pauline and Elovaris, Lauren, 'The Role of Job Representatives in an Organising Strategy: The Case of the Australian Nursing Federation', The Journal of Industrial Relations, no. 50, 2008, pp. 25 - 44. Details
  • 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


  • Australian Industrial Relations Commission, Victorian Hospitals Industrial Association v Australian Nursing Federation S9958 [2000] Australian Industrial Relations Commission 267, 31 August 2000. Details
  • Australian Nursing Federation, Australian Nursing Federation (Victorian Branch), Annual Report 1992 - 1993, Secretary's Report, 1993. Details

Online Resources