WTF? HACSU, HSU, EBAs, and the poor health of unions in Australia

[Below is a contribution from a health worker addressing negotiations between the Health and Community Services Union (HACSU) (a Victorian branch of the Health Services Union (HSU)) and the Baillieu state government regarding a new Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) for workers in the public health sector.

As noted previously, the HSU, its current and former leadership, is today in the news for all the wrong reasons. Otherwise, note that in February in Greece, Kilkis General Hospital was occupied by workers. On February 26, the Hospital’s General Assembly issued a statement which read in part:

“This occupation is not only about us, the physicians and the workers at the Kilkis Hospital. Neither is it only about the Greek National Health System, which is collapsing, indeed. We are in this fight because what is in real danger now is the human rights and our lives. And this threat is not against just a nation, or against a few countries, or a few social groups, but against the low and middle classes in Europe, America, Asia, Africa, in the whole world. Today’s Greece, is tomorrow’s picture of Portugal, Spain, Italy and the rest of the countries worldwide.”]

WTF – What The Fuck?

My workplace is awash with radical fervour right now.

Actually, no it isn’t.

Apparently, I’m The Hard-Hitting Union Guy at my workplace. If true, this is an indictment on the state of collective action at the clinic where I work, as I mostly post faxes the union sends and forward their emails to a mostly disinterested staff.

Mostly.

For the last seven months, the Health and Community Services Union (HACSU) has been negotiating on behalf of its members with the Baillieu government for a new Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA), arguing for more than the offered 2.5% pay “rise” (which is really a pay cut given that the current rate of inflation is 3.6%) and better working conditions for nurses and allied health workers across the entire mental health sector. (As opposed to management claims for conditions such as split shifts and worker redeployment to other locations without notice.) HACSU tells its members that they’ve been “fighting” for them and have covered the legal aspects of the industrial action with Fair Work Australia. In my view, this union-run EBA campaign exemplifies the key failings of Australian unionism. In the following article I articulate some of the reasons why I think this, and argue for the need to facilitate actual workers’ control of our workplaces.

The ANF and Mental Health Nurses

In March this year, the Australian Nurses Federation (ANF) concluded six or so months of negotiations. It obtained the same employment conditions that HACSU is still bargaining for.[1] A decisive factor in obtaining this outcome was nurses taking “unprotected” industrial action. These actions supplemented the failing, formal negotiations conducted by the ANF with the government.[2]

Now, if you believe what HACSU state secretary Lloyd Williams had to say about the matter, HACSU was working rigorously alongside ANF throughout this period. This display of solidarity has not, however, been reciprocated now that the ANF has concluded negotiations for its membership, many of whom are employed in the mental health sector. In other words, the ANF finished negotiations without ensuring its entire membership was included in the agreed settlement. Indeed, allied health workers (such as Occupational Therapists and Social Workers) had no idea about what ANF’s success meant for them. This may seem like a strange statement — why would nurses’ bargaining relate to allied health? — but the perception among workers in the sector has rightly been that ‘we’re all in this together’ and precisely because we service the same or similar cohort: the acutely unwell.

I don’t know for sure, but I presume that the ANF was negotiating in regard to awards that do not cover mental health (for nurses). I do know that many nurses in my workplace felt stiffed when it was brought to their attention that the ANF’s so-called “victory” constituted no such thing for them. It’s certainly hard to see how concern for all nurses affected by Baillieu’s unreasonable proposed conditions is being practiced here, and the ANF does not appear to support HACSU’s EBA campaign in any meaningful way at present, despite it mirroring their own. This further demonstrates a lack of solidarity for allied health mental health workers who, again, service the same cohort but in a different manner and not necessarily in the same locus (ie. community clinics and “Thomas Embling”, the prison/hospital/psych ward).

HACSU and HSU – East

To further complicate matters in the sector, confusion reigned last year when HSU–East actually settled negotiations with the Baillieu government, most notably accepting the proposed 2.5% pay rise over the next four years, reportedly for fear that continuing to argue for a greater — and entirely reasonable — pay increase could somehow lead to further loss of pay. This has greatly hampered mental health nurses’ and allied (mental) health workers’ access to reasonable pay increases and work conditions, as the Victorian Hospitals Industrial Association (VHIA) opportunistically took this poorly-represented union’s settlement and ran with it all the way to Fair Work Australia (FWA) (which arbitrates industrial negotiations such as the present EBA one).

Consequently, HACSU and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) repudiated HSU’s involvement in EBA negotiations specifically, and their capacity to represent allied health workers in mental health in Victoria more broadly.[3] Thus, many workers who had been keeping HSU staff in good coin for no good reason were stiffed. In fact, all of us workers were stiffed by their actions because it’s made it that much more difficult for our representatives in HACSU to argue our case: I had confused staff asking me what this all meant, both when HSU settled for a terrible EBA but also when the ACTU barred them from the bargaining table. Fortunately, HACSU has been successful in repealing HSU’s settlement through FWA.[4]

Now, as if all this wasn’t bad enough, the HSU has been suspended from the ACTU due to alleged misappropriation of members’ funds and other corrupt practices.

What I conclude from all this is that, whatever their historic role, unions in general have become yet another bureaucratic layer between workers’ efforts to attain greater control over their workplaces and the state. Unions attempt to justify lining their coffers with workers’ money to suit their own cushy ends by complying with increasingly mediated and bureaucratic means of negotiating with employers. FWA arbitration, for example, requires unions to apply for “protected” industrial action, rather than workers directly fighting for better conditions. It’s hard to see how such complicated arrangements are in the interests of workers, who are understandably confused by all of these machinations and who meekly vote “yes” to whatever resolutions they’re spoon-fed at union rallies.

This is not how I define industrial democracy.

Where it’s at

HACSU is now repeating the process undertaken by the ANF in an effort to force through the conditions they’d like to see in the EBA: namely, by conducting work stoppages. However, HACSU doesn’t want workers to “disadvantage” patients and so the stoppages will be two hours long and will roll out variously at different mental health wards and clinics around Victoria. This seems backward to my mind. In reality, it’s the state that’s responsible for adversely affecting patients by a) woefully under-resourcing the mental health sector and b) attempting to stiff workers out of reasonable pay increases and working conditions. Taking such a softly, softly approach and suggesting to workers that we don’t want to inconvenience or place the health and welfare of our clients at risk induces workers to accept the blame for an unacceptable state of affairs in the mental health sector.

Regardless, on the 18th of April, St Vincent’s Mental Health wards and clinics will stop work at 9am and again at 3:30pm for two hour periods. Workers will don their orange campaign t-shirts and walk out on the job to rally out the front of the acute inpatient service at 64 Nicholson St, Fitzroy: it would be nice to see some black-and-red in amongst the crowd.

The slogan for the HACSU EBA 2011 (sic) campaign is, “WTF – Where’s The Funding?”.

WTF, indeed.

[See also : WorkPartners (November 15, 2011).]

This entry was posted in Broken Windows, State / Politics, That's Capitalism! and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to WTF? HACSU, HSU, EBAs, and the poor health of unions in Australia

  1. paul thomas says:

    unfortunately you do not realize the standard of care in the public system has deteriorated because of the poor quality of the workforce who want to be protected from working at the real coalface out in the community what is happening now is a paradigm shift towards new systems of care competition of health care providers in mental health eg private for profit operators too many examples of public system failures eg enquiry into 1000 deaths or homeless person removed from alfred emergency dying in st kilda hours later because community teams mainly female want cushy nine to five head stuck behind computer refuse to engage with pointy end

  2. BS says:

    Having worked as a bottom-rung union official for a few unions, we work off the smell of an oily rag and genuinely attempt to ‘organise’ workplaces.

    But most members ARE disengaged. You explained how as the “union guy” you’re looked on differently despite the nature of your union work. This is especially a common theme across the public sector.

    Unions should lead and educate, but also respect what members are prepared to do (or not do). I couldn’t believe some of my members trying to organise flex-time so they wouldn’t be docked for an hour last year, let alone “activists” who simply couldn’t miss that meeting and didn’t even walk.

    Unfortunately, the vanguard could fit inside a van these days; it’s all about lawyers, commissioners, and keeping the candle burning as best as you can. Please stay active, us hacks are trying.

  3. Anonymoose says:

    Firstly: Paul Thomas, have you never heard of punctuation? I ask not as an attempt to be insulting but because punctuation assists with making sense. I’ve had to read your comment several times to understand what it is you’re saying.

    Secondly, your grammar is also problematic in the same way.

    Thirdly, I doubt you have much experience of working in the public health sector or the welfare sector based on what you’ve said here. My co-workers and I in the community mental health sector are all excellent, dedicated and hard working practitioners who struggle to assist our clients effectively thanks to the huge amount of paperwork created by the imposition of neo-con style measures in order to squeeze “value” out of us (the flipside of which is increased accountability, which is a point that contradicts your accusation of workers refusing to get their hands dirty) and the massive (and increasing) caseloads (ie. 30 clients : 1 practitioner).

    Fourthly, I’m not sure what your point about “private for profit” operators is about but you can bet your bottom dollar they won’t and don’t work with the clients we do in the public sector, whose issues are far more complex due to the social realities of being working and under class. Also, our clients’ medication is heavily subsidised by the state – instead of paying $350 approx each fortnight for the Risperdal Consta depot (injection), they pay $6 approx, which is something a “private for profit” system wouldn’t permit. That is, accessible and affordable (ie. equitable) treatment does not occur in private health system.

    Fifthly, you’re a sexist pig. Whereas, that *is* an insult, it’s also true.

    BS, I know you said “bottom rung” but Michael Williamson earned himself $300,000 and for what? Genuine workers’ assemblies could “lead and educate” – and in a participatory, truly democratic manner – far more effectively than big unions do.

    But yes, none of this stops me supporting myself and my comrades as best I can and the union plays a role in protecting me in this (largely self-appointed) role, so my criticism isn’t totalising. It turns out you *can* polish turds.

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