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Brown’s Address to the 2006 ASMS Conference

Comment on Jeff Brown’s Address to the 2006 ASMS Conference
Geoff Annals

Ian and staff of the ASMS, Jeff and national executive members, esteemed medical colleagues kia ora koutou. Thank you for the opportunity to comment on your presidential address. It’s an honour, but also a challenge; I don’t want to be the swine feasting on pearls at a banquet of royals. And Jeff, I’ve got to say you deliver a finely turned phrase; ‘treasure the strands of connectedness with the luminous layers of professional responsibility’ indeed!

But I was awoken from my gossamer-word-spun reverie by Jeff’s pungent challenge to this Conference to take up the task of leadership in the face of intransigence across the negotiating table. This is the challenge that defines a union; and when that union is a union of workers holding a special social contract incorporating unusual professional rights and responsibilities, then that challenge is all the more exacting.

Industrial action; no let me use the term ‘strike action’, by doctors or nurses is, in the analysis of some, beyond the pale. But that is what Jeff is challenging this Conference to be conscious of, to consider, to be prepared for. I applaud Jeff’s decision to do so. Whether we readily accept it or not, a union that does not consciously and conscientiously develop and guard its capability to take effective strike action is a union that will be consigned to industrial irrelevancy.

Of course it is always a bad thing that a strike takes place but that is not to say that a strike can never be the right thing to do. Indeed there are times when, in my view, it would be wrong not to strike. Yes, a strike is a weapon. A strike is the ultimate means a group of workers has to assert its determination to bargain for a desired objective. And if that objective is principled and its attainment is necessary to the delivery of a substantial social good, then workers faced by an employer’s persistent refusal to bargain, surely must exhaust every avenue available to them. That ultimately may mean they strike. So I support Jeff’s call for this Conference to give careful thought to the issue and I want to pick up on this aspect of his address.

The leadership task Jeff has put before us begins with ensuring the bargaining objective is principled and that its attainment is necessary to the sustained delivery of proper patient care. I suspect this can be readily established in your case and your leadership will ensure it is so.

The next task of leadership is more difficult. Good union leadership requires that strike capability is very carefully constructed so that it can be deployed to clear and incisive effect. This requires first and foremost that a strike action is planned to which all members will commit and then maintain that commitment throughout the duration the action requires. Unions of health professionals also have to plan our action allowing for the fact that, even when the objective is clearly socially principled, and every proper arrangement is made to safeguard patients, a minority of committed members will decide they cannot refuse to provide patient care. Planning to enable such members to support the strike, while adhering to their own ethical dictates, is in my view one of the leadership tasks that is critical to building an effective strike capability within a union of health professionals. The notion of union solidarity is fundamental and requires special attention in unions like ours. The upside of this complication for us is that when we do it well it also tends to shape an action that promotes public support.

The second leadership task is to achieve absolute clarity of purpose. Not only must every member of the union readily understand what exactly is the reason for the strike but also so must related unions, the public and the employer. Without such clarity, solidarity is at risk, broader worker support may not be forthcoming, public opprobrium may erode union solidarity and the employer will use false or even genuine confusion to his advantage.

The final leadership task is to design the action so it has maximum effectiveness in bringing an intransigent employer back to the bargaining table with a genuine desire to achieve fair settlement. It may seem obvious; this is the purpose of a strike after all. But without careful thought a strike action may create more difficulty for members than for the employer. Consider what will target most accurately that which is valued most by the employer but will cause least disruption to patients. In other words, target revenue not patients.

And be aware that the most effective strike of all can be the well developed capability that is available but never used. An employer conscious of a union’s willingness and capability to deliver an effective strike is unlikely to choose bargaining intransigence over principled, good faith negotiation.

As union leaders, know also, that the strike can be an appropriate and effective instrument for good but like any potent instrument, can also be wielded ineptly, or prepared poorly. Whether the outcome of a well developed strike capability is good or ill depends not only on the decision when it should be deployed but also on how it is deployed.

In conclusion and by way of illustration let me consider for a moment the strike by our junior medical colleagues earlier this year. I single out this strike because of its relevance to the issues before this Conference, not because the RDA are the first to ever run, what was in my analysis, a failed strike. NZNO too, has had failed strikes.

This is why I consider the recent junior doctor strike was a failed strike.
1. The objective as I understood it was principled; DHB advocates wanted the RDA to agree to managers having the ability to change junior doctors’ conditions of practice more or less at will. However this objective was poorly articulated within the membership and beyond.
2. The action chosen was crude and failed to adequately engage the commitment of the whole membership.
3. The strike had relatively limited impact on the employer relative to the duration and breadth of the action. As a result DHB managers were left with a much reduced level of anxiety about their ability to withstand future strikes. As an instrument it has been blunted.

Nurses and the NZNO supported their junior medical colleagues through this action but that doesn’t mean we were happy about the way it was conducted. A failed strike is very serious for every union. A failed strike reduces our own ability to achieve principled and socially constructive bargaining outcomes through a well constructed strike capability.

The capability to strike is an instrument or perhaps a vehicle for a particular and important purpose. The nature of that purpose is such that it is best kept visible and polished, ready to run but only occasionally run out of the garage and rarely ever taken onto the road. I fear that as a result of poor industrial leadership by the RDA, unions like the ASMS and NZNO are much more likely to have to exercise our own capability to strike.

We initiated for bargaining in DHBs yesterday. You’re up first. We are ready to support you as you take up the task of leadership Jeff has laid out before this Conference. Your success is important to us. It will reduce the likelihood we will have to strike to achieve settlement of our claims but you can be sure we will be ready to do so if we must.

Thank you and Kia kaha!


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