Not just another nurses’ strike

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Not just another nurses’ strike

Barbara Docherty

Barbara Docherty

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Nurses protest 9 November
A nurses’ protest on 9 November last year

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Former practice nurse Barbara Docherty is shocked and saddened by the poor working conditions of striking DHB nurses

“Now, like many of my colleagues, all I can feel is a deep sadness for many nursing careers which started with such promise and confidence, but which are now slipping away”

I remember the ’80s when we marched for more money; never really expecting to gain much but every little would help.

Conditions and being valued were always put forward as important but rarely a major emphasis. And often our hearts weren’t really in it, if I’m honest.

It was more of a game between what general practice considered we were worth (something I found quite humorous following a survey of practices that identified only 5 per cent of GPs ever asked the nurse to show her practising certificate), and whether a unionised group such as the NZ Nurses Union would win the battle around the table surrounded by strong men in the NZMA who really didn’t want to give an inch.

Clever negotiating and verbal push and shove. That always won the day.

Make-or-break time 

We’re now into something quite different. And in case you feel you’ve heard enough about striking nurses, consider this. The recent march had a different air about it. The nurses weren’t there to simply make a lot of noise or see how many cars tooted their horns in support, or whether politicians would continue to say how much nurses are valued. This was make-or-break time.

As I walked alongside nurses on their way to Parliament’s grounds I felt really sad. Really deeply sad. They weren’t just unhappy, they were desperate to be heard and deeply demoralised. When they spoke of not having toilet breaks (yes, no toilet breaks) I wondered how it had come to this rock-bottom place. When they said they raced off for lunch, grabbed a bite and went straight back to make sure their colleagues weren’t left alone with no one to support them, most of us would cry “third-world conditions”. One nurse did just that and was told she was very lucky she had a job.

Disappointment in Labour 

Outside Parliament Andrew Little was howled down, often by nurses who had voted Labour because they really believed this government believed in their cause. These nurses didn’t appreciate being reminded that nursing is a global environment, and that as a government they “still think the salaries that are offered are competitive along with other working conditions and clearly, obviously, living here in New Zealand”.

One nurse cried out, why do you think that Wellington Hospital’s busy emergency department has lost more than 20 of their nurses in the past three months, and seven nurses across the hospital have left for Australia in the past three weeks in search of better wages and conditions? Experienced nurses, including four in senior positions, had accounted for most of the resignations.

A nurse next to me said she goes home and collapses. Her happy home life is deteriorating because she has nothing left in her tank when she gets home. She has been nursing for close to 38 years.

After hearing their stories I feel totally convinced they are a very special case at this point in time in New Zealand, and life has to be made easier for them. There’s no other choice and no other group so deserving. It’s even making me begin to hate the America’s Cup now. As a born-and-bred Aucklander, it’s impossible to overlook the excitement of those boats on the water and I’ve even previously supported the insane financial amounts offered by the governments of the day. But that cool $99 million set aside for this event should now be passed onto these nurses. These are unprecedented times.

Nothing left to prove 

As the nurses hang on by their fingernails on a daily basis few health professionals would argue that, if we suddenly have an explosion of COVID-19 there simply won’t be sufficient nursing numbers to care for the sick.

What’s even worse is that nurses who would normally throw themselves onto the front line will simply refuse to do so. They don’t want or need to keep proving themselves to their own cost anymore. Mental health issues are clearly manifesting themselves in these nurses, and burnout, depression and deep fatigue have been well documented.

I salute Mike King for taking his frustrated stand and returning his medal in protest at the lack of movement on mental health. He always talks about it being the simple things. The almost unnoticeable until it breaks out over time into something bigger. Nurses have slowly been burning away with minor mental health problems unaddressed, and eventually pushing their way out into the largest-ever march in protest. These nurses are hurting badly and it’s hard to understand why the government is so out of touch and doesn’t see it this way.

I’ve never regretted not pushing my children or my grandchildren into nursing. I knew they’d never be lucky enough to enjoy it as much as I did. Our wages were basic. We worked really hard and started our days before 6am. We were a proud bunch once. Now, like many of my colleagues, all I can feel is a deep sadness for many nursing careers which started with such promise and confidence, but which are now slipping away, not slowly but at an unacceptably accelerated pace.