Is it about nurses - or is it about everyone?

11 Jul 2018


It's heartening to see so much support for the New Zealand Nurses organisation (NZNO) announcement that it will proceed with its nurses' strike on 12 July.

Still, with the NZNO having rejected the Government's $1b offer, and the Acting Prime Minister saying the Government has no more money to make a new one, you'd be forgiven for being a little confused.  So let's provide a bit of useful context.


Responses to the usual critiques

Some argue that the nurses should take the offer, as demanding more leaves less Government funding to go around, which puts at risk other workers in 'the negotiating queue'.

However, blaming nurses in this way indicates dichotomous thinking which misses the bigger picture.

All should be paid what they’re worth.  That they are not is symptomatic of a larger pathology: workers are paid less because of systemic wealth inequality in Aotearoa.  This has worsened since Governments (both Labour and National) embraced neo liberal capitalism in the 1980’s.


Urgent implementation of a more progressive tax regime would help the Government "find" the money in the future (even though lack of money's a misnomer).  Announcing a firm commitment now to this (plus a promise to review, in good faith, nursing employment conditions at that time) might help smooth things over somewhat with the nurses and alleviate the need to strike.

Some believe that such a promise is impossible for politicians to make in the short-term.  However, anyone paying historical attention would know that while the process is involved, none the less laws can in fact be introduced as fast as politicians want them to be – and firm commitments to a “progressive” regime can be made even faster.  It’s just a matter of whether there’s the political will and strong leadership to do the right thing. So it’s disingenuous to imply that can’t happen in the “short term” (unless you’re a conservative, not a progressive Government – in which case, citizens might want to be looking for new leadership. Especially in this climate crisis Age where we need bold courageous action that builds resilience, not more of the same debilitating status quo).

Others demonize nurses as being too bolshy with their demands. They would do better to return to work so calm and order can resume, and then we can have a 'sensible' dialogue about the situation.

I’m sure politicians love it when the sovereign people don’t “make demands”. But the truth is - and again, history shows – ordinarily, power doesn’t cede itself voluntarily: The People have to force change and accountability of our elected officials (they are our public servants, we’re not their servants – although it’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell these days).

And if citizens’ demands are consistent with human rights (including labour rights), I would expect affected ethical politicians and officials to be looking for innovative ways to help realize that human rights standard.  The fact that they don't should be deeply disturbing to everyone (if bureaucrats can treat nurses this way, think of who next the bureaucrats will treat that same way?).

As for the technicalities of the negotiations, $500m and $1b might sound a lot – and it is, at one level. But on the other hand, compared to what? Apparently, this momentary strike is merely symptomatic of a pathology that’s been brewing over a decade of “severe underfunding” of our public hospitals (so now a $1b package starts to look like only $100m annually when spread over 10 years – not so flash: context is everything).

Why is it, the one time nurses announce strike action they’re attacked? People have short memories: nurses haven’t gone on strike for 30 years – how bad do things have to be for them to be striking now, I wonder?  I would hazard a guess that nurses have for those 10 severely underfunded years been attempting 'sensible' dialogue, but to no avail. Perhaps it’s not nurses who people’s animosity should be directed at, but politicians both past and present who continue to support policies that perpetuate and exacerbate inequitable distribution of wealth in our society.

We can do better than capitalism

For goodness' sake: the Government's leading Party is called "Labour". NZ can do better than this demonstrably failed neo liberal capitalistic economic operating system. And with the health care sector being disproportionately represented by women, to do so is doubly important  (from a feminist perspective, at least). 

Gross wealth inequality keeps Governments locked in this false tailspin narrative that "we don't have enough money".  In an Age of fiat currency that's created out of thin air? Sorry Ministers: informed citizens ain't buying it.  It's time we innovated and figured out how to pay workers what they're worth.


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