30,000 health care workers strike in New Zealand

By Felicity Coggan
June 28, 2021

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Some 30,000 nurses, midwives and other health workers walked off the job in a nationwide eight-hour strike June 9, after overwhelmingly rejecting the government’s latest contract offer. The nurses work in public hospitals and outpatient services, the main provider of such care in New Zealand. Government-employed nurses in COVID vaccination centers also joined the strike.

“Just get more staff and stop asking people to do overtime when they’re already tired,” Tania, a dialysis nurse who requested to use only her first name, told the Militant at a march of 2,500 here. The need for more staff was a central demand at marches and rallies across New Zealand.

During her 40 years as a nurse, “it’s never been harder, it’s never been so unsafe, it’s never been so poorly paid,” emergency department nurse Anne Daniels told a rally in Dunedin. Her department has 26 beds, but regularly had 40 to 50 patients. “They look at me every time I run past, wanting to be helped and we can’t do it. We can’t give people the care they deserve.”

Their union, the New Zealand Nurses Organisation, is demanding a 17% pay increase, five extra days of sick leave and implementation of safe staffing protocols that the government had agreed to after their last strike in 2018.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said the pay claim is unaffordable. The government offered nurses only a 1.38% raise, the union said, and a proposed one-time lump sum bonus of 4,000 New Zealand dollars ($2,840)  that was actually just part of back pay nurses are set to receive on a previous claim.

Many nurses have left New Zealand, moving to higher paid jobs in Australia, to other occupations, or just retiring. The union’s wage demand would almost close the gap in pay rates between nurses in New Zealand and Australia.

Marchers here, many wearing purple, the union’s color, carried signs saying, “Stand with us,” “Safe staffing saves lives” and “Applause does not pay the bills,” referring to government rhetoric about essential workers. Marchers chanted, “What’s disgusting? Unsafe staffing!”

Recently the government announced it was imposing a pay freeze on public sector workers. This doesn’t effect the nurses, because their negotiations began last July, but strikers say the government is using it to press to limit the pay raise. “What’s outrageous? Freezing wages!” chanted those demonstrating.