17 Aug 2021

Nurses union calls off strike as lockdown looms

8:29 pm on 17 August 2021

Nurses have call off strike action set for 19 August following a community case of Covid-19 in Auckland and a nationwide lockdown.

The New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) this evening announced it had withdraw its strike action plans.

Some women were having their planned caesareans cancelled, and operations deferred as midwives and nurses geared up to walk off the job on Thursday.

Midwives strike in Auckland

Midwives went on strike in Auckland earlier this month. Photo: RNZ / Kate Gregan

All signs were that the strikes would go ahead before today's news of a community case of Covid-19 in Auckland.

Talk had focused on contingency planning rather than contract negotiations.

About 30,000 nurses, midwives and health care assistants from the Nurses Organisation and 1500 midwives from the MERAS union were to hold separate strikes on the same day after they failed to reach agreements over pay and conditions with district health boards (DHBs).

Hospitals had been making plans, cutting services and taking out radio and newspaper ads telling people how they would be affected.

DHBs' national contingency planner Anne Aitcheson said hospitals would normally try to reduce their occupancy to about 85 percent during a strike.

But that had not been possible because winter illnesses such as RSV meant there were a lot of people who needed urgent care, she said.

That meant they had to ask more nurses than usual to stay on the job for essential care.

Both sides would have had to agree on the number of union staff who need to stay working to provide what are known as life preserving services.

The nurses organisation's Glenda Alexander had said it had been difficult to get enough to put their hands up to work during the strike in some big city district health boards, and in some mental health services.

That was because they were frustrated with chronic understaffing, she said.

"I guess they are saying - we have to put up with these unsafe conditions all the time so why should we go further to help out when we are in a dispute," she said.

Aitcheson had said the nurses were not being asked to cover above and beyond normal staffing levels - and final details for Thursday were still being sorted.

Emergency services would have still been available for those who needed them, she said.

Earlier this month, the DHBs took the Nurses Organisation to the Employment Court over the details of how the staffing agreements are worked out.

A judge has reserved his decision.

District health boards had asked nurses to call off Thursday's strike after new progress on their dispute about gender pay equity.

The biggest nurses union said the announcement that the government has agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to settling a gender pay gap will not change strike plans.

Nurses Organisation spokeswoman Glenda Alexander had said there won't be a new offer for nurses to consider before strike on Thursday - and pay equity was only one part of their dispute.

Health Minister Andrew Little said Cabinet had now set aside money to address the gap in pay between the mostly female workforce and men with equivalent skills in other jobs.

The DHBs say nurses should treat the news like a circuit breaker and get back around the negotiating table.

But nurses said they had no new offer to consider.

And they said gender equity was only one part of their dispute.

They also want safer staffing levels and a cost-of-living pay rise in a year when the Government has frozen the wages of most public servants.

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