Arguably Minister of Health Andrew Little is the MP in the New Zealand Parliament with the greatest experience and knowledge of collective bargaining between employers and unions. For several years he was an effective leader of the Engineering, Printing & Manufacturing Union, the largest union in the private sector. In 2005 he initiated one of the most effective collective bargaining campaigns that I’ve observed called ‘5% in 05’.
One would have thought therefore that he would have understood collective bargaining behaviour well in the highly unionised health system, especially in district health boards (DHBs). One would have also thought that he wouldn’t publicly misrepresent the position of the union representing nurses (NZ Nurses Organisation – NZNO) following the nurses strong rejection of the DHBs’ latest proposal for settlement of their national collective agreement in their recent ballot. How wrong ‘one’ was.
Disingenuous response to nurses ballot rejection
After the ballot outcome became known the Minister alleged in public that the proposed settlement rejected in the ballot was actually proposed by NZNO. Nothing could be further from the truth. The proposal came from the DHBs who are negotiating on behalf of government.
NZNO acknowledged that the proposal was an improvement on the DHBs previous position and agreed to ballot its members. But it wasn’t their proposal and they didn’t endorse it. This is common in the collective bargaining process.
During my time with the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists I negotiated over a hundred collective agreements, both locally and nationally. I’m rather proud of this century, particularly as a keen cricketer for many years I never got close (no difficulty achieving this milestone in golf however). Attempts to drive a wedge, including the use of misrepresentation, between union leaders and members weren’t uncommon. While exposing them became an effective organising tool for me as a union leader, the overall effect was to generate (or strengthen) distrust of the workforce towards their employers making a settlement even more difficult to achieve.
This bad behaviour would have also been experienced by Andrew Little when he was a union leader. Consequently it was even more disappointing to seeing him practice what in an earlier life he would have abhorred. It has led to the word ‘liar’ being used to describe him in some nursing and union social media. This is unfortunate because it doesn’t resonate with my understanding of him.
But his conduct was at least disingenuous. As Minister this more significant than if the bad behaviour had come from a DHB representative. While DHBs are the formal employers of nurses, in practice the government is the organ-grinder. Government dictates the position of DHBs who can go no further than allowed.
There is another lesson to be learnt by government and DHBs from the nurses’ ballot rejection. The 2018 settlement was ratified by nurses with a clear majority. But a sizeable minority voted for rejection and a number of those voting in favour did so unhappily.
This led to a legacy of distrust which has been reinforced by the subsequent failure to address pay equity (a feature of the 2018 settlement) in a separate process from these negotiations and the Government’s foolish attempt to introduce a pay freeze for more experienced nurses.
It is self-obvious to state that trust takes a long time to earn but only a short time to lose for an even longer time.
Lack of certainty
The proposed settlement has been called ambiguous by some. I can understand how this view emerged but it isn’t quite right. It would be better to characterise parts of the proposal as lacking certainty. Some provisions included words to the effect of agreeing to reach agreement by a specified time.
In an environment of trust this might work but not when distrust is the prevalent sentiment. The Government has brought this unfortunate situation upon itself. Further, the Health Minister’s erroneous accusation against NZNO has only served to increase distrust among nurses.
Achieving a settlement
If this dispute between the Government and nurses is not to further escalate the focus needs to sharpen on what is required to achieve a settlement. There are important factors that the Government needs to accept and act on.
First, DHBs have severe nursing shortages which is affecting patients’ access to and the quality of treatment. Second, nurses are paying for this situation with their health. Turning a blind eye makes a mockery of the commitment to wellbeing. Third, DHBs are losing experienced nurses to Australia and elsewhere. Fourth, it is becoming increasingly difficult for DHBs to recruit enough younger nurses to work in increasingly unsafe workplaces.
Then the Government needs to agree to negotiate increased nursing salaries to a level that will both retain existing experienced nurses and recruit additional nurses to the number required to ensure workplaces are safe for both patients and nurses.
Andrew Little has the knowledge and skillset to play a constructive role in settling this escalating industrial dispute. It is time (overdue in fact) that he demonstrated this.