Shaye Candish takes over from Judith Kiejda as NSWNMA Assistant General Secretary in August. Shaye believes nurses and midwives have great untapped potential to influence their workplaces through collective action.
Nursing wasn’t Shaye Candish’s career goal when she began studying for a nursing degree at the University of Western Sydney.
She wanted to be a speech pathologist but the course wasn’t offered within commuter distance of her home in Liverpool, where she grew up in a single-parent family.
“I decided to go into nursing thinking it might give me an opportunity to transfer into speech pathology later. But once I started the course I really loved it,” Shaye says.
She joined the NSW Nurses’ Association on graduating in 2008. “I didn’t have any real awareness of unionism. My mum worked really hard but wasn’t politically minded; joining the union was just a thing most new grads did when they got their registration.”
Shaye’s first placement was in the emergency department of Campbelltown Hospital. “I loved the variety of the work and the talented team who were keen to share their knowledge. It was a wonderful development opportunity for a young nurse,” she says.
“My values aligned with those of the union, but I had almost no interaction with the union for the first few years of my career. There were delegates on my unit but we didn’t have a visible branch.
“That experience has made me think a lot about the way we interact with members. How many potential members are out there now who don’t know much about what we do?
“It’s critical that we continue to build good union leadership in the workplace.”
Her first contact with the union came a decade ago. Amid a “current of discontent” over inadequate staffing, management tried to resolve staffing issues by moving to abolish 12-hour shifts.
Shaye called the union office and got information which allowed her and her colleagues to craft a collective response incorporating the latest research on 12-hour shifts and management’s legal and industrial obligations. Management dropped the proposal.
Shaye later contacted the union for advice on how to achieve another goal: getting an additional nurse in the resuscitation area, where a lone nurse was responsible for four beds.
The ED nurses collected data, benchmarked against similar-size departments, and showed that the staffing was unsafe, below standards of similar hospitals and against departmental policy.
“Management’s response was blasé, but when we put up posters advertising a planned protest
rally, management folded and agreed to appoint a new position on night shift.”
A different challenge every day
With a growing appreciation of the work of the union, Shaye successfully applied for a job as Association organiser eight years ago.
Since then, she’s represented aged care workers in western NSW, public sector nurses in the Murrumbidgee and southern NSW regions and southeast Sydney.
Before becoming Assistant General Secretary, she was a lead organiser, the coordinator of the Public Health Sector 2018 ratios campaign and one of two co-managers overseeing the work of the aged care and private hospitals organising team.
As ratios campaign coordinator in the year leading to the 2019 state election, Shaye directed and coordinated the work of organisers, delegates and members to develop a united approach across NSW.
Members collected thousands of signed pledges to support ratios and the union educated members on the importance of how politics impacts public health. Due to this work, the Association achieved a comprehensive policy on shift-by-shift ratios from the Labor party.
Nurses and midwives held rallies across the state, addressed public meetings, lobbied politicians, called other members and spoke to the community and media.
“The campaign achieved a strong swing in marginal seats towards parties that supported ratios and raised the political awareness of many hundreds of members who got involved,” she said.
“We went into the campaign with a real intention to develop local union leaders, give them good structures in their workplaces and a lasting capacity to be involved in future public sector campaigns.
“Many of those new-found activists are still involved today and have taken the skills they learnt into their workplaces.
“At NSWNMA, the variety of work has been fabulous – a different challenge every day that keeps
you connected to the profession,” Shaye says.
“It’s been exciting to work with so many incredibly skilled nurses and midwives who are at the peak of their speciality.”
Nurse/midwife union activists have always found it difficult to arrange face to face meetings for a 24/7 workforce.
Shifting power in the workplace
Shaye says the pandemic led the NSWNMA to new ways of working, such as videoconferencing, that have given members new ways to be involved in their union – including online voting.
“COVID-19 has also seen the NSWNMA successfully advocate to protect nurses and midwives with appropriate PPE.
“We were calling for adequate masks and fit testing before Delta was heard of.
“In general, I want our members to win and part of that means we have to start to shift the power relationship in the workplace.
“We need members to realise they have the ability to influence their workplace by collective action.
“We know they have tremendous community support but we have to get better at actually exercising their power.
“When we use that power we can have a significant impact on the care we provide to our patients and we can also improve our own working conditions.”
Shaye, who lives in Wollongong, says she’s grateful to have had a supportive workplace environment while raising her sons aged six and two.
“When we support women and fully accept that kids are part of their life, we give them the opportunity to thrive – and the loyalty an organisation gets from them is incredible. I would love to see that attitude in all our members’ workplaces.”