Union split drives strike by doc­tors

Nelson Mail - - Opinion -

The forth­com­ing strike by ju­nior doc­tors is more com­pli­cated than most be­cause there are not one but two unions in play, each with dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives on what ju­nior doc­tors want.

The strike that starts at 7am on Tues­day and ends on Thurs­day, with a sec­ond strike to fol­low later in Jan­uary, is the re­sult of un­re­solved ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween the dis­trict health boards (DHBs) and the Res­i­dent Doc­tors’ As­so­ci­a­tion (RDA), which is the larger of the two unions. Its col­lec­tive agree­ment with the DHBs ends on Fe­bru­ary 28, hence the cur­rent ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Back in 2017, the RDA reached a break­through deal with the DHBs over safer ros­ters. Those ne­go­ti­a­tions fol­lowed ex­ten­sive pub­lic­ity about the stress­ful work­loads and long hours ex­pe­ri­enced by doc­tors and spe­cial­ists in the pub­lic health sys­tem.

De­spite the prej­u­dices of those who char­ac­terise any strik­ing worker as lazy, self­ish or un­re­al­is­tic, money was not the is­sue for the ju­nior doc­tors. A sur­vey of pub­lic health spe­cial­ists in 2016 re­vealed that they were right to be con­cerned about over­work.

In one week, 53 per cent of re­spon­dents to the sur­vey had ex­pe­ri­enced less than 10 hours’ rest be­tween shifts, 47 per cent had worked more than 14 con­sec­u­tive hours, and 33 per cent had not had a 24-hour break from sched­uled work. Half of those who re­sponded re­ported symp­toms of burnout.

The new deal that fol­lowed said ju­nior doc­tors could not work more than 10 days in a row, re­duced from 12 days.

But not all doc­tors agreed, with some claim­ing that the new ros­ters were in­flex­i­ble and had been ‘‘im­posed’’ and ‘‘en­forced’’ by the RDA. They ar­gued that im­por­tant train­ing time was re­duced, lead­ing to the for­ma­tion of a break­away union, the Spe­cialty Trainees of New Zealand (SToNZ), which emerged about six months ago. That group agreed to work 12 con­sec­u­tive days in or­der to have more train­ing time, and ar­gued that the RDA’s ros­ters led to ‘‘mul­ti­ple han­dovers’’, which are not safe for pa­tients.

The pub­lic is un­der­stand­ably con­fused by the com­pli­cated pic­ture that has emerged of ri­val unions with dif­fer­ent de­mands and com­pet­ing claims.

The same com­pli­ca­tions con­trib­ute to a dis­crep­ancy over how many doc­tors will be taken out of the health sys­tem next week. The DHBs say 2000; the RDA puts the num­ber at more than 3000.

Both unions seem to agree on at least two things. No doc­tor should work more than 72 hours a week and, most cru­cial of all, there are sim­ply not enough doc­tors in the sys­tem.

The RDA’s con­cern has been that, if it can­not reach a new agree­ment with the DHBs by the end of Fe­bru­ary, then the SToNZ deal will be im­posed on all ju­nior doc­tors. That ex­plains the sense of ur­gency and a vote for a sec­ond strike, which tes­ti­fies to the ‘‘re­solve’’ of the doc­tors, ac­cord­ing to the RDA. The dis­pute be­tween the two unions il­lus­trates the dif­fi­culty of ap­ply­ing one model across 20 DHBs.

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