Nurses strike: Judith Collins blames Government signalling nothing for 'hard-working people', increasing benefits

National Party leader Judith Collins says Labour would be able to give nurses a pay rise if it prioritised public servants instead of increasing benefits.

Nurses will strike on Wednesday after they rejected a second pay offer, with the union describing District Health Board (DHB) working conditions as "outrageous".

The Government has said it can't afford to give nurses the 17 percent increase the New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) has asked for. 

Collins is blaming the strike on the Government and told The AM Show it was never a problem when National was in power.

"We had nine years of Government and in that time the nurses never once went on strike… we also were able to manage to get pay rises almost every year, despite the fact we inherited the Global Financial Crisis."

It's true nurses didn't strike under National - nor did teachers. Alastair Reith, a trade unionist, explained there were likely a couple of reasons for this. 

"Was it a case of union officials not wanting to take action, and the rank and file following that? Or were union members not ready to take action, despite officials being up for it? I suspect some combination of both," he wrote in a column for The Spinoff in 2018 - the same year nurses walked off the job for the first time in three decades. 

According to the Government, the pay rise cut for public service employees announced last month won't stop nurses from rising up pay scales already in place - but the NZNO says most have already progressed to the final step. 

"For a start, the Government shouldn't have done what it did in the Budget which was to signal nothing for nurses or any of the hard-working people who got us through the pandemic," said Collins. "What they did do, though, is increase benefits."

In 2018, the year after Labour was first elected, nurses received a minimum pay increase of 12.5 percent after strike action. 

The settlement also brought about a definitive date for the implementation of pay equity - but that's yet to be achieved.

Collins, without saying what specific action National would take to stop Wednesday's strike from happening if it was in power, fears many New Zealand public servants will go across the ditch.

"There will be a lot of people; police officers, nurses, people like that who can't increase their salaries, who are saying, 'why wouldn't I just go off to Australia?

"They have better pay and conditions."

DHB spokesman Jim Green told The AM Show on Wednesday pay negotiations have been a long and complex process. 

"We've been working quite intensely with the NZNO and their members over the last few months in particular."

Green said he fully understood why nurses were walking off the job.

"I don't think there's any doubting there's a lot of pressure in the health system. We had a difficult year last year, as I said, with COVID-19… and we really, really value the nurses and midwives, and all of the people in the health sector."

Negotiations between nurses and DHBs will continue after Wednesday's strike with both sides agreeing to meet.