Editorial: Is this health strike political?

21:34, Aug 05 2014

The proposed industrial action by more than 12,000 health workers, including 1400 in Canterbury, seems like a throwback to the bad old days of industrial relations. It doesn't reflect well on anyone concerned that, after months of negotiations, it has come down to the threat of partial strikes and overtime bans. The union involved, the PSA, says it is the biggest such action in more than a decade and no-one should be proud of that.

The workers involved include public health nurses, mental health nurses, physiotherapists, anaesthetic technicians, dental therapists and administrative staff. They are among the front-line staff and backroom toilers who keep our public health system running and who inevitably will garner sympathy from the public - or those at least who don't have their elective surgery cancelled because of the strikes. At issue is a wage offer by the combined district health boards of 0.7 per cent, or 1.5 per cent over two years, well below the rate of inflation and described as an "insult" by the PSA, which is seeking an annual increase of 2 per cent. The action is well supported by the workers themselves, with 87 per cent voting in favour of it.

The DHBs counter that the health sector, unlike others, was relatively cushioned from the effects of the financial crisis, has had consequent increases in pay and staffing levels over recent years, and must now "temper" expectations of getting more. Some worker groups, including clinical psychologists, have accepted the offer.

This is election year, and in January Finance Minister Bill English talked up the economy, played down any idea of tax cuts and suggested that workers should ask for pay rises after years of belt tightening. Well, the health workers are following his advice. This, of course, is the same government which controls the purse strings when it comes to health. It has pumped many extra millions into funding it - $13.65 billion in the year to June 2012, $13.85 billion in the June year 2013, $15.5 billion in the latest Budget. Despite that, with health service demands increasing, perhaps as much as 17 per cent over the decade to 2021, the DHBs maintain the sector is still facing straitened times. Even so, an offer of only 0.7 per cent seems derisory if the health boards really do value their workers. It is to be hoped that this is still only a bargaining position for a pay process which remains in negotiation and that the strikes will not need to go ahead.

On the other hand, the timing of the proposed action seems cynical on the part of the union. Working to rule would start at the end of this month, followed by a two-hour strike on September 2 and a three-hour strike a week later. That means any disruption would happen in the last three weeks of the general election campaign before voting on September 20. The rhetoric of the PSA press releases this week was aimed not at the DHBs, but at the Government, which it said "has plenty of talk promising wage rises for New Zealanders, but their own workers are getting left behind". We do hope that the union's true motivation for the strike is to achieve a better deal for its members and not to try to influence party politics.


The Press