“Dedication Won’t Pay the Rent”: Nurses’ Labour Activism in Canada, New Zealand and Australia, 1980s and early 1990s
Linda Kealey, Professor Emerita, UNB
Canadian Historical Association, Ryerson University, Toronto, ON, 29-31 May 2017
Although the industrial relations systems and political structures of these three countries vary significantly, it is evident that nurses in all three places engaged in significant labour activism through strikes and other means of contesting government restructuring and cutbacks. While the timing of industrial action was not exactly coterminous, nurses in all three countries demonstrated a pattern of intensified conflict in the 1980s and 1990s. In Canada, for example, over half of nursing work stoppages recorded between 1960 and 2009 occurred in the 1980s and early 1990s. This new militancy is also notable in Australia especially in the mid 1980s where a 50-day strike occurred in1985-86, the first sustained industrial action by nurses in that country. Similarly in New Zealand the mid to late 1980s awakened nurses to the effects of government cutbacks and their relatively poor wages. While strikes were almost unheard of at the beginning of the 1980s, by the end of the decade New Zealand nurses found them unavoidable. Although restructuring and cutbacks occurred under both labour and conservative governments in the Antipodes, the ascension of conservative parties and governments intensified in the 1990s. In Canada the federal Conservatives in power from 1984 to 1993 and some provincial governments also implemented harsh measures that affected health care and moved nurses in a number of provinces to mobilize in the most effective way they could—by withdrawing their labour. This paper begins an analysis of the factors that help explain the interactions among the three countries’ industrial relations systems, nurses’ organizations and governments that led to increasing militancy in this period.