District Health Boards have begun the process of stopping all but urgent treatment as they count down to a probable nurses’ 24-hour strike scheduled to begin next Thursday.
Last night there was confirmation that a further strike would take place the following Thursday.
The potential strikes have begun to take on political overtones.
On the one hand, the Nurses’ Organisation is saying it wants to directly challenge the Government’s Budget Responsibility Rules.
And, on the other, regional employers groups are stepping up their opposition to the Government’s proposed employment relations law changes.
Only weeks ago their national body was happy to work with the Government to make the changes.
Meanwhile, the New Zealand Nurses’ organisation and the Boards enter two days of non-binding Facilitation under the aegis of the Employment Relations Authority.
The parties do not have to follow the Authority’s recommendations, but they must consider the recommendations, in good faith, and cannot reject the recommendations without first considering them.
The boards — and the nurses — are required to provide essential services during the strike.
In a joint statement yesterday the DHBs and the Nurses Organisation said: “The key point is, emergency and essential services will be available during the strike, and all doctors and non-NZNO staff will come to work as normal.
“Everyone who needs hospital care which cannot be deferred will have it.”
The Association of Salaried Medical Specialists in a memo to its members said: “DHBs are rescheduling electives in advance, so the wards are as empty as possible on the day.
“The day should be planned to be like a non-festive Christmas Day.”
At the heart of the politics of the dispute are the Government’s Budget Responsibility Rules.
The President of the New Zealand Nurses Organisation, Garth Brookes, speaking before the election in Hamilton last year said the rules would tightly restrict government spending in any future Labour, Green government.
“These rules are not good enough,” he said.
He said the Nurses’ organisation supported the Combined Trade Unions (CTU) call for “higher levels of government activity and investment than these rules permit.”
Health Minister David Clark has said the Government had put everything on the table.
The theme is the same; the Government needs to have budget surpluses to deal with contingencies and Clark has repeated that line with respect to the nurses.
There has been a quiet but persistent campaign from the union movement in recent months attacking the Budget responsibility rules.
“We’re a fiscally responsible Government, and we’ve got to allow for the fact that we have things like Mycoplasma bovis coming up, or natural disasters like earthquakes, and we want to make sure that when those events arrive, we do have the books in good shape,” Clark said last week.
But Clark and his colleagues will find themselves under siege not just from the nurses but also the employers who are starting a campaign today against the Employment Relations Bill.
The employers are planning an advertising campaign using outdoor billboards, press and digital advertising.
It will be a national campaign involving all four members of the BusinessNZ family (EMA, Business Central, Canterbury Employers Chamber of Commerce, Otago/Southland Employers Association).
In a statement, they say they will be asking Government MPs to “Please Fix the Bill”, at the same time encouraging its members to ask the same of the coalition Government.
“We wholeheartedly agree with the Government’s goal of developing a modern, nimble and high performing economy; however we would like to understand how labour laws of yesteryear will enable this to happen,” says Kim Campbell, CEO, EMA.
“We are deeply concerned that what is being proposed in the Employment Relations Amendment Bill 2018, plus a raft of other related legislation in the pipeline, is old thinking for a modern world.
The campaign seems designed to capitalise on what is known to be disquiet within NZ First over the Bill.
“New Zealand First MPs have the chance to modify parts of this legislation and work with small business to deliver an industrial relations framework that will help them grow their enterprises,” said Campbell.
The campaign reflects a more aggressive attitude towards the Bill from the regional employers’ associations than the one that has been put forward by their national body, Business NZ.
Representing Business NZ, Wellington Chamber of Commerce head John Milford, said it had some concerns “around flexibility” and ensuring businesses could maintain a strong relationship with their own employees.
But defending Business NZ’s decision to join the working group chaired by Jim Bolger asked by Employment Relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway to advise on setting up fair pay awards, Milford said Business NZ was pleased to be part of the solution.
It was better for BusinessNZ to be involved in the working group than to “sit on the outside and lob hand grenades in”, he said.
However, if these strikes spread beyond the public sector into the private sector in any volume, then Milford’s approach to dealing with the Government may come under pressure from employers around the country.
Apart from the nurses, some public servants are also planning strikes, and there is a possibility that the teachers may follow.
Today’s campaign is the first indication of that.