On September 1, the Socialist Equality Group (New Zealand) held an online forum to discuss the lessons of the New
Zealand Nurses Organisation’s (NZNO) sellout deal imposed last month on nearly 30,000 nurses, midwives and healthcare
assistants after a national strike in public hospitals.
The forum was attended by SEG members, students, health workers and members of the Socialist Equality Parties (SEP) of
Britain and Australia. Participants emphasised that the fight for decent healthcare and other public services was
international in scope and required the unification of workers’ struggles globally.
The opening report by Tom Peters, a leading member of the SEG, explained that the 9 percent pay increase spread across
2017–2019, combined with a meagre 500 extra staff for the entire country, was a defeat for workers. “This means the
continuation of brutal austerity measures that have starved the health system of funding for more than a decade, placing
workers and patients at risk. The Labour Party-led government of Jacinda Ardern has made clear that it will not resolve
the crisis,” he said.
In many countries the working class is beginning to fight back against the attacks on its living conditions and public
services imposed since the global financial crisis of 2008. Peters pointed to the widespread strikes by teachers in the
United States. Parcel delivery workers and Amazon workers were also looking for ways to fight back, but workers were
trapped inside unions that were hostile to their most basic interests.
The speaker urged health workers to “draw the necessary lessons” from the bitter experience they had gone through.
“Health workers did not lack determination to fight, and they had widespread support throughout the working class. What
was lacking was a clear political perspective to fight against the government and the entire system of capitalism, which
is defended by the unions.”
Health workers were unable to break the stranglehold of the union, which wore down, demoralised and divided them to
secure a majority in favour of the agreement, which was virtually identical to two offers workers had rejected.
“After union leaders failed to prevent the July 12 strike, they continued to repeat the government’s blatant lie that
there was ‘no more money’ to immediately address the problems in the health system,” Peters said. “Yet just days before
the strike the government announced $2.3 billion would be spent on four new jet planes for the air force to help prepare
the country for war.”
Peters said the sellout demonstrated the need for workers to form rank-and-file committees, independent of the unions
and controlled by workers themselves. Such committees would fight for workers’ demands for safe staffing, a 20 percent
pay increase, and billions of dollars for healthcare facilities, funded by a sharp increase in taxes on the rich.
“The committees will become powerful organising centres within hospitals, directly challenging the power of management
and the unions to dictate how everything is run. They will also fight to unite with teachers, transport workers, meat
workers and others,” as well as workers in Britain, Australia and internationally.
Peters criticised the administrators of “New Zealand, Please hear our voice,” a popular nurses’ Facebook group, who
urged workers to support the NZNO and deleted critical posts, including WSWS articles. “We call on the administrators to
allow free discussion, including of a socialist perspective,” he said.
Some nurses have formed an “NZNO members action group” calling for the “democratisation” of the union. Peters warned
that this perspective, backed by the pseudo-left group Socialist Aotearoa, is a dead-end. He noted that current NZNO
president Grant Brookes falsely promised to democratise the organisation when he stood for the position three years ago.
Since then he has acted as part of the union bureaucracy, helping to sell out nurses.
The NZNO Board, headed by Brookes, recently lashed out
at nurses expressing anger at the union’s actions, threatening them with fines and disciplinary action.
“The unions cannot be reformed,” Peters said. “They are led by a privileged bureaucracy that has nothing in common with
the workers it supposedly represents. Their job, for the past four decades, has been to help governments and employers
suppress the working class and impose one betrayal after another.”
Ajanta Silva, a health worker and SEP member in Britain said the European unions were likewise assisting governments and
corporations “hell-bent on the destruction of previous social gains, livelihoods, pay and working conditions.”
In Britain, “health workers, like other public sector workers, have not had a real pay rise for eight years,” Silva
said. “In March, 13 health unions negotiated a pay deal with the government and sold it to their members stating it was
‘the best deal in eight years.’” The head of the Royal College of Nursing, Janet Davies, resigned
at the end of August following outrage over the union’s misrepresentation of the deal, which consisted of a 6.5 percent
increase over three years—well below the rising cost of living.
The SEP’s National Health Service (NHS) Fightback campaign, Silva explained, is fighting to build rank-and-file
committees “to unite all sections of the working class in defence of a free, comprehensive health service and the
immediate end to the outsourcing and privatisation of the NHS, the nationalisation of Big Pharma and billions of pounds
investment in healthcare and other vital social services.”
Michelle, a nurse and a member of the SEP (Australia), raised that the need for safe nurse-to-patient ratios in
hospitals was “at the forefront of nurses’ demands internationally,” but had been ignored by the NZNO.
Cheryl Crisp, a leading member of the SEP (Australia), added that a recent union-backed employment agreement covering
New South Wales nurses was opposed by 19 union branches because it did not provide safe staffing levels.
Crisp pointed out that the NZ health workers’ struggle evoked considerable fear in the Labour government “because of the
danger that this would be taken up by broader sections of the New Zealand working class. Within a couple of weeks of the
nurses’ struggle, 30,000 teachers went on strike.” The NZNO ensured that its members were isolated from teachers and
other workers, including public servants and transport workers.
SEG member John Braddock said pseudo-left backers of the unions falsely claimed that the Labour government could be
pressured to “loosen the purse strings” in the interests of workers. In fact, Prime Minister Ardern had responded to the
wages movement in the working class by reassuring business leaders that Labour was “listening” to their concerns and
would not undermine their profits.
Linda Tenenbaum, also from the SEP (Australia), said health workers had shown courage and preparedness to fight, but
needed to understand “where we stand, historically speaking. The capitalist system has only one solution to survive, and
that is: each country carrying out war against their competitors and suppressing the working class to the level of
The need for rank-and-file committees, she said, was a “class question. The working class can’t manoeuvre in
organisations that represent the interests of profit,” including Labour and the unions.
Peters concluded by calling on workers and students to help build the SEG into the New Zealand section of the
International Committee of the Fourth International, the world Trotskyist movement. This was the only way to build a
socialist and internationalist movement, capable of resolving the crisis of political leadership in the working class
and waging a real fight against austerity and militarism.