Union split drives strike by doctors
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.