The 1986 50-day Victorian nurses and midwives strike
A digital exhibition launched by the ANMF (Victorian Branch) on the
30th anniversary of the historic Victorian nurses’ and midwives’ strike
The context for the strike
Several factors paved the way for the nurses’ decision to take strike action. The first was the Royal Australian Nursing Federation’s vote in 1984 to remove the no-strike clause from its rules, under the leadership of the late Barbara Carson.
In that year, the Victorian Government’s cuts to its health budget were ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ in RANF’s words, fomenting a campaign of industrial action in which members banned non-nursing duties.
Working out of uniform, and bans on use of agency staff followed. Despite the government’s offer to recruit 700 new non-nursing staff within a year, in September of 1985 nurses and midwives were still working for low wages, burdened by non-nursing duties and high patient loads. Many nurses and midwives had left the profession.
On 17 October 1985, Victorian nurses and midwives used their powerful new industrial tool for the first time – they walked off the job, staying out for five days.
As an industrial officer at RANF from 1982, John Kotsifas witnessed the unfurling of nurses’ industrial consciousness. He believes that it was the Cain Government’s failure to honour undertakings made in the early ‘80s around workloads and career structures that led to the 1986 strike.
In May 1986 Barbara Carson retired and RANF organiser and former Alfred Hospital Job Rep, Irene Bolger, assumed the mantle of Branch Secretary.
Then the Industrial Relations Commission handed down its incendiary award decision in June of 1986. The interpretation of the award saw hundreds of nurses downgraded into lower classifications – some with even lower pay - and qualifications allowances withdrawn.
Nurses – already at breaking point– were enraged. Talks with the Victorian Government, with John Cain as Premier and David White as Health Minister, ensued - but to no avail.
On 30 October at a stop work meeting held at the Melbourne Sports & Entertainment Centre, members voted to strike from the following day.
A skeleton staff of one registered nurse and one enrolled nurse or student nurse per ward would remain, together with safe staffing levels in critical care wards such as intensive care and emergency.
But for some RANF members the action did not go far enough. A secret ballot of nurses and midwives at Footscray's Western General Hospital was held. They voted to walk out of all but critical care wards.
The decision to walk out of hospitals was huge for a profession which prides itself on putting patient care first. The action reflected nurses' and midwives' level of anger at the Victorian Government and their collective despair.
On 5 November at the Western General Hospital nursing supervisor and RANF Job Rep Isabell Collins, together with Irene Bolger, led the first of a wave of hospital walk outs .
Ms Collins broke down in tears as she greeted nurses outside. Forty five of the hospital’s 500 nurses were left to care for patients in critical care wards.
Premier John Cain threatened to invoke the Essential Services Act to force nurses back to work or face arrest. On 6 November the Industrial Relations Commission handed down a return to work order. Premier Cain released a direct-to-camera televised appeal to nurses: return to work and the negotiating table, and ‘give a little’. The nurses’ response? On 10 November, nurses at two of Melbourne’s largest hospitals - Royal Melbourne and Prince Henry’s - walked off the job, along with nurses and midwives at nine other hospitals.
On 17 November 1986 – day 18 of the strike - Fairfield Hospital became the 37th hospital to walk out.
Emotional scenes of nurses walking out of hospitals in metropolitan, regional and country Victoria screened on television news for weeks, providing powerful images in the public relations war with the government. In an interview conducted with ANMF (Victorian Branch) in 2016, Ms Bolger said the staggering of the walk-outs was the union's strategy to keep the strike in the public eye.
But not all nurses walked out, or stayed out. Some disagreed with the action and remained on the wards. Others returned to work as the strike progressed and the impact of not being paid began to take its toll.
Picket lines and powwows
With nurses out on strike around Victoria, 24-hour picket lines were established, keeping the strike visible to the community and limiting delivery of supplies like non-essential food and linen.
RANF Job Reps attended daily councils of war at the union’s headquarters and bulletins were taken to picket lines and sent to nurses’ homes.
Regular mass meetings attracted thousands of nurses, with members making decisions every step of the way. Other unions provided support to the nurses and midwives on the picket lines – donating essentials like toilets and telephone lines; the meatworkers’ union donated meat for picket line barbeques. Unionists collected money for the nurses’ strike fund, administered by RANF.
The Industrial Relations Commission refused to arbitrate the dispute while the nurses remained on strike, Health Minister David White refused to negotiate outside of the commission, while the nurses refused to return to work until the government negotiated their claims. The dispute was deadlocked.
The government’s next move was to bring in nurses from England and Ireland to replace the striking nurses.
On 30 November, at the Royal Melbourne Hospital picket line, the dispute turned ugly with police dragging nurses along the ground, as they broke the picket line to allow trucks carrying fresh linen to go through.
On 8 December nurses had been on strike without pay for 39 days. They were exhausted. But they felt they had to win and voted to escalate the dispute by walking out of critical care wards. Health Minister David White’s initial response was to threaten replacing the registered nurses - who were mostly RANF members - with state enrolled nurses - but he backed down. The ACTU and RANF put forward a joint package for the government’s consideration.
The community's response
All of the key players in the nurses’ strike say that nobody thought the industrial action would last 50 days.
It was unprecedented for Victorian nurses and midwives to be walking out of hospitals and camping out on picket lines, holding firm against the government in the face of threats of manslaughter charges, being stood down or sacked, and use of the Essential Services Act to force them back to work. Elective surgery was cancelled, hospital beds were closed and towards the end of the strike, nurses even began withdrawing their labour from critical care wards.
Given the importance of public relations in the dispute, the community’s support was pivotal.
Nurses pay the price
For the thousands of nurses and midwives who took part in the 1986 strike, going without pay for 50 days was one of the more tangible hardships of the campaign.
But for many it was a sacrifice they felt they had to make: losing the campaign meant returning to an untenable situation. There was also a huge emotional toll for nurses and midwives.
Walking out on patients was difficult but the strike also affected relationships between nurses who walked out and those who remained at work, as well as relationships between striking nurses and hospital management.
Irene Bolger weathered death threats and a threat to kidnap her young son, as well as criticism in the media.
As one of a group administering the strike fund, Lisa Fitzpatrick heard many stories of financial hardship.
Nurses again gathered in their thousands at the Sports & Entertainment Centre on 19 December to consider a $30 million package offer from the government, providing wage rises, the return of qualifications allowances and a new career structure.
Irene Bolger advised making a ‘strategic withdrawal’ saying members could go back on strike if the government did not honour its promises.
Nurses voted to return to work on 20 December 1986.
In January 1987 the Industrial Relations Commission issued the new agreement. John Kotsifas, RANF industrial officer, says the union went back to the Commission many times in ensuing years to fight – and win - cases about the career structure.
Within hospitals, the strike also had lasting reverberations. Back at work, says former Job Rep and nursing supervisor at Western General, Isabell Collins, nurses were coming to her office ‘collapsing emotionally’ with something akin to post-traumatic stress disorder.
Some experienced retribution from management. But there was also a great pride in what the nurses had achieved and solid friendships forged on the picket lines.
The perception of nurses and midwives as handmaidens had been cast aside.