Academic journal article Hecate

Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves.And Us

Academic journal article Hecate

Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves.And Us

Article excerpt

Nurses are often seen as the archetypal `hand-maidens' of men. But if there was any one event that threw off this image once and for all, it was the Victorian nurses' strike of 1986. Not only was the nurses' dispute important for nurses, it is a valuable lesson for all women workers and those who write about them. All too often, the focus is on women workers' passivity, their super-exploitation and the problems they face in breaking through their conditioning.

While it is obviously important not to dismiss these difficulties and problems, this approach focusses too much on women's weaknesses. What it fails to take account of is that, when they become involved in struggle, women can quickly break out of this passivity. It ignores the fact that throughout history (especially since the rise of capitalism) women have often played leading roles in massive social upheavals; and that once they break out of the ideology and bonds of feminity, their struggle can take on a dynamic above and beyond similar struggles by men.

Many women sympathetic to socialism worry about how to ensure that women are not left on the sidelines of any socialist revolution. The nurses' strike had an impact on everybody's perception of women workers. It certainly gave the lead to other workers in the fight against Labor's policies and cuts, as many male workers acknowledged.

The nurses' strike provides an example of why socialists say the key to women's participation in building a new socialist society lies not in keeping a watchful eye on men, but in building on struggles. It is through struggles such as the nurses' strike that women will learn how eventually to become leaders of the revolutionary movement.

"For the first time thousands of nurses here are finding that they do have power, that they can change their own lives and that's what I find really exciting about this strike."

(Socialist Action, December 1986)

These were the words one nurse used to describe the Victorian nurses' 50-day strike. And it wasn't just the nurses who were inspired. Workers wrote into the local newspapers, rang the union in support; at workplaces all over the state money was collected, and many workers wanted to take action. As one crane driver from a South Yarra building site said: "It's exciting, this is what we should have done over the BLF." He went to to talk about the strike and how he and his workmates were supporting the nurses with collections and site meetings.

With a militancy matched by few other trade unions in these days of `consensus', Victorian nurses stayed out until they won. The determination stemmed from long-held frustration, stress, and anger over the alarming deterioration in the hospital and community health services.

In Victoria, hospital waiting lists reached 27,000 before the strike (they're now about 34,000), and the Cain government had cut the health budget, in real terms, each year since 1982/1983. The toll on nurses was disastrous: they topped last year's workers' compensation claims. 10,000 of them left nursing in the year to October 1985, and a further 8000 did not renew their practising certificates. The current shortfall for the state is about 14,000 nurses.

Nurses' militancy stemmed from two different kinds of experiences in the past in trying to change the situation. The first was of working within the system, taking part in government reviews, lobbying and having high level meetings with the Health Minister -- and getting nowhere fast. The second, over the past ten years particularly, was of going outside the system, taking direct action.

A Look at History

Beginning as early as April 1975, 4000 angry nurses stormed the Victorian parliament. The issues were staffing and pay. They marched singing "We shall not be moved", and carrying placards saying "Unite and Fight" and "Dedication doesn't pay the rent." Then from 1977 to 1979, nurses in NSW and Queensland marched, picketed and put on bans over staffing and bed closures. …

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