Workforce tensions at ‘pressure point’
Physiotherapists in Waikato are the latest workers to signal strike action as a wave of industrial action sweeps across the country.
While some claim the unrest is simply a reaction to a change in Government, a management expert believes a more likely explanation is that simmering tensions have hit a tipping point. In the past few months, groups including teachers, nurses, court staff, midwives, bus drivers, anaesthetic technicians and tomato growers have planned to or have gone on strike.
For senior physiotherapist Nikki Laker, the upcoming strike will be her first in 21 years with the Waikato District Health Board.
The APEX union delegate and 57 frustrated colleagues plan to walk off the job for 24 hours later this month. ‘‘The only reason ... is to actually try and get [a pay] offer on the table,’’ said Laker, who works in paediatrics.
‘‘[The DHB has] offered us nothing. They’ve said: we’ll get back to you. We’ve been waiting since April,’’ Laker said.
The two parties will go into mediation before the strike on November 19 and Waikato DHB says it is ‘‘hopeful of a resolution’’.
The cluster of strikes was not a coincidence, Massey University management school Professor Jim Arrowsmith said.
It had been simmering over a decade of low wage growth and rising housing costs, as employees felt they were working hard and still struggling to pay bills.
‘‘The more cynical and superficial perspective is that we’ve had a change of government and all of these organised workers are trying it on or trying to leverage bargaining. At one level, that’s a fair comment. But there’s nothing to say that this wouldn’t be happening if National were in charge too, because I think these problems are longer-term but also acute now.
‘‘We’re coming to a pressure point.’’ It was also about working conditions, he said.
‘‘It’s the wage-effort bargain ... It’s about pay in relation to what’s being asked of you.’’
Teachers may have a bigger class or more technology to deal with, he said, or a radiographer may be doing more mammograms.
Strikes in those public sectors are more common, he said, because workers are generally unionised, more likely to be in fulltime, permanent roles, and the strikes can have a ‘‘high disruptive impact’’.
In the Waikato physiotherapists’ case, they haven’t had a written pay offer since their collective contract expired in April.
That’s despite two meetings with the health board, as representatives said they didn’t have authority to make an offer, Laker said.
There were physios on every ward of Waikato Hospital, she said, and they did things such as get patients up and moving again after an operation, rehabilitate people after strokes, help people with breathing, and treat outpatients with complex muscle pains and strains. They were hard to recruit, and one senior position was recently vacant for more than a year, she said.
When the pay offer comes, Laker hopes it will be similar to what nurses recently achieved – nurses accepted three pay increases of 3 per cent, along with two new steps at the top of the pay scale.
APEX has 58 physiotherapist members at Waikato DHB, most working at the Waikato Hospital campus.
‘‘We are hopeful of a resolution,’’ a health board statement said, ‘‘but are working on contingency plans in case we have to defer any outpatient appointments.’’
The health board said it could not comment on why a pay offer had not been made, and whether those meeting APEX members had authority to make an offer.
The physiotherapists plan to strike for 24 hours from 7am, Monday, November 19, unless an agreement is reached before then.
‘‘These problems are longer-term but also acute now.’’ Professor Jim Arrowsmith