Nurses stick together at Christadelphian Aged Care
Nurses at Christadelphian Aged Care – a religious not-for-profit organisation – were shocked when management set out to abolish a range of long-standing benefits and rights after the company’s enterprise agreement expired.
Assisted by an aggressive law firm the company wanted to take away benefits protected in the enterprise agreement ranging from one week’s annual leave down to provision of tea and biscuits in staff rooms. And it wanted to impose additional conditions such as the right to force employees to move between different sites during a single shift.
During six months of tough negotiations many nurses joined the NSWNMA for the first time. Two new union branches were formed at workplaces and a group of union members gained valuable experience in negotiating with the employer and conducting campaigns in the workplace.
The nurses stand to gain an annual 2.5 per cent pay increase and saved many important conditions.
A new enterprise agreement covering all staff at seven nursing facilities was narrowly approved with 42 per cent voting against. The agreement is now in the commission waiting for approval.
The Lamp asked three Christadelphian Aged Care nurses to sum up their experiences and lessons learned during the campaign.
Big Health and Safety issues the catalyst to form union branch
Forming a branch of the NSWNMA was high on the agenda when members at the Southhaven Aged Care facility first met to discuss their campaign for a new enterprise agreement.
Nurses got together and agreed a NSWNMA branch with a stronger union presence would help them push for improvements at the 130-bed facility in Padstow Heights.
They decided to recruit more nurses to the union during the campaign in preparation for setting up a branch.
“There was a good roll-up at that first meeting because there were so many issues we needed to address, especially in workplace health and safety,” said registered nurse Julia Bundy.
“Construction work had been going on for years and some of us had individually approached management about the safety risks several times. We got a very negative response with no improvements.”
Management lacked interest in health and safety
In another example, management installed ceiling-mounted lifts in every resident’s room but waited more than a year before training nurses on how to use them.
“These cases showed management’s complete lack of interest in occupational health and safety, which is still a very big issue for nurses. That’s partly why nurses felt passionately about talking to the union,” Julia said.
NSWNMA staff conducted health and safety inspections accompanied by representatives from Christadelphian Aged Care head office, which “shook things up a lot” and produced some improvements.
Once enterprise agreement negotiations got underway Julia joined NSWNMA representatives from other Christadelphian facilities and NSWNMA staff at negotiations with management and their lawyer.
“I had no idea that the negotiation process was so complex and drawn out – it was a real eye opener and an education for me,” Julia said.
“I had a new understanding and respect for the union and what they do. The union officials were extremely well educated and very polished and professional.”
New union presence kept staff informed of attempted rollbacks
Julia was the main link between the negotiating team and Southhaven nurses.
“After each negotiating session the negotiating team would discuss the outcome and the next steps in the campaign. I would take a summary of the negotiations back to the members at Southhaven and relay any advice from the union.
“The most difficult thing was having to go back to my co-workers and tell them what rights and benefits the Christadelphians intended to take away from them.
“The nurses were shocked and disappointed to learn the details.
“For example, the company wanted to abolish one week’s annual leave and reduce our uniform allowance so we weren’t paid it while we were on holidays. They even wanted to remove tea, coffee and biscuits to staff from the agreement.
“At one stage management told me not to talk to staff about the negotiations. I answered that everything I’ve told the staff is true, and just reflects the written demands the Christadelphians have put to the union.
“I said the staff have a right to know what they stand to lose when it comes time to vote on the agreement.
“The nurses were very appreciative of me being involved in the negotiations. I’ve worked there for 30 years and I’ve got a good rapport with the staff.”
The prospect of losing a swag of benefits prompted more nurses to join the union during the course of the campaign. Julia and other members called a meeting in the tearoom to form a branch and elected a president, secretary (Julia) and two delegates.
“I was very impressed with the support the union gave to the staff. The employer will usually have the upper hand in negotiations so I think the union did a great job.”
Outrage led to boost in union numbers
“We wouldn’t have got anywhere near what we wanted without the union, that’s for sure,” said Helen Kennedy, a registered nurse at Ridgeview Aged Care facility.
Ridgeview is a 150-bed nursing home run by the Christadelphians at Albion Park in the Illawarra region.
Helen got involved in EBA negotiations when they started in October.
“People were outraged at what they (Christadelphians’ management) were trying to take away from us. That inspired me and a lot of other people to get actively involved in the campaign,” she said.
“The company wanted to cut a week’s annual leave.
“We couldn’t understand why they wanted to take this and other things away from us. We are working harder than we have ever worked. Many of us have worked here for years.
“A lot more is expected of us than there ever used to be. It’s more like a medical ward than a home for the aged now. Our skills are expected to be a lot closer to those of a medical nurse in a public hospital yet we are paid well below public health system nurses.
“People are living longer, residents are sicker and older and relatives have higher expectations. Plus our documentation gets more and more demanding.
“The workload is very heavy and it just seemed so unfair they wanted to take conditions away from us.”
She said the EBA campaign resulted in a stronger union in the workplace with a lot of new members and forming the first NSWNMA branch at Ridgeview. Elected office bearers include Linda Cruickshank as president, Rebecca Lawyer as assistant secretary and Helen as secretary.
Helen and Linda are attending union training courses and delegates meetings in Sydney to learn how to better represent nurses and improve working conditions.
“We work hard without complaining but when the company said we couldn’t go to Fair Work over workload issues, we felt our voice was being taken away.”
Information key to bargaining progress
Registered nurse Helen Sharpe has worked at Courtlands North Parramatta nursing home under various owners since 1998. But even she was taken aback when management set out to remove longstanding conditions from the enterprise agreement that Courtlands was to become a part of.
“The company expected us to fight for everything that had already been achieved,” she said.
As a member of the NSWNMA bargaining committee Helen’s role included keeping her fellow nurses informed of progress in EBA negotiations.
“I do night shift so I was able to talk to some of the afternoon nurses, the night nurses and the morning shift in one day.
“When I told them the company intended to take everything off us they could see it was so unfair.
“We picked up quite a few new members who joined after the union ran information sessions at the nursing home.”
Helen said another positive aspect of the campaign was a recent union health and safety inspection of the workplace.
“One of the things we were looking at was the health and safety impact of understaffing, partly due to people on annual leave not being replaced.
“With six nurses caring for 39 or so residents, and some of them requiring two staff members to assist them, it can be really difficult to provide proper care.
“Working one short on night shifts and having to cover three areas is really hard. If someone has a fall or similar it really impacts on the rest of the residents and it leaves us vulnerable in the event of an emergency.”