Public sector pay freeze: Nurses warming to strike action plan - union

Nurses have until Thursday to decide whether months of stalled pay negotiations should result in industrial action.
Nurses have until Thursday to decide whether months of stalled pay negotiations should result in industrial action. Photo credit: Getty Images

By Jordan Bond for RNZ

The major nurses' union says the Government's decision to freeze large swathes of the public sector's pay could push many of its members into voting for strike action.

Following a meeting with unions, the Government said that it will now consider cost-of-living increases for public servants and review pay increases before the end of next year.

But that climbdown may be too late for nurses who have until Thursday to decide whether months of stalled pay negotiations should result in industrial action.

RNZ spoke to a senior nurse who last year was terrified of dying from COVID-19 or at least giving it to her family, so she lived separately from them in a sleep-out, sacrificing family life so she could care for sick people.

Last week, the government told her she wouldn't get a pay rise for three years.

"To be facing in real terms a pay decrease ... it was absolutely a slap in the face having faced extreme risk, on behalf of the community, to keep the community safe," said the woman, who wanted to remain anonymous.

In the 15 years she's been working in hospitals, the nurse said she has never seen worse conditions. She said they are regularly understaffed, wards and waiting rooms are overfull, and it is often unsafe.

She said last year's extreme stress is now showing itself in burnout and high staff turnover.

She does not think conditions will get better, and a staff exodus is underway.

"I've got colleagues at the moment who are applying for jobs in Australia, and I'm looking at alternatives outside of nursing. The empty platitudes and the false promises - I'm just over it."

Melbourne move pays off

One nurse who moved to Australia last year, Andrew Clarke, shifted from Christchurch to Melbourne and said he loves it.

He immediately got a $9 an hour pay bump, and is now studying for a postgraduate course while working, with support from his employer and a scholarship.

He said saving money is easier, and he and his fiance have no plans to leave.

"There's a lot of really exciting opportunities over here... experience-wise, it's a really good move. Financially it's just a no-brainer. The conditions for nurses over here are certainly more favourable than [in] New Zealand," Clarke said.

Announcement may affect strike vote - Nurses Organisation

Nurses Organisation spokesperson Glenda Alexander said nearly a week on after the Government's pay freeze "guidance" they have received a number of unhappy comments from their members.

"After the massive effort they put in over the COVID-19 response, they feel like it's another undervaluation of what their work is worth ... they're very angry," Alexander said.

The shock announcement came as negotiations between district health boards and the NZNO for their collective pay agreement had reached an impasse. The union had already decided to take a vote on whether to strike.

Alexander said the Government's announcement that pay rises will be hard to come by - in the middle of their negotiations - is likely to influence nurses on the strike decision.

"That ballot won't close until Thursday so I won't say what their thinking is, but I'd say they're feeling pretty upset by what's happened and that may change the decisions of some people."

Alexander was encouraged after hearing directly from Public Service Minister Chris Hipkins, and was reassured by their efforts to continue to work on pay equity and increase the wages of those on lower salaries.

And while our anonymous nurse said she would prefer to avoid industrial action, she knows many of her colleagues are voting 'yes' to the strike.

A heck of a time to feel unwanted - today is International Nurses Day.