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Nurse pay: UK unions need to follow New Zealand’s lead

The New Zealand Nurses Organisation has negotiated an impressive pay deal

The New Zealand Nurses Organisation has negotiated an impressive pay and staffing deal, so it’s time that their UK counterparts put more pressure on the government, says James Buchan

New Zealand nurses staged an effective strike. Picture: Getty

Government statistics published last year highlighted how UK trade unions experienced their biggest-ever annual membership drop in 2016, down to 6.2 million. 

This begs the question: what are unions for? This is a question that becomes sharply honed for UK nurses. Those working in the NHS have lived through seven years of a pay freeze. In England, this was finally ended by a pay award that, for many, did not look worth the seven-year wait, and there was a low turnout of union members to endorse the pay deal.

Regarding safe staffing levels, union dialogue with governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales has led to some change in approach. But England continues to default to a ‘there is no one size that fits all’ argument from a largely unresponsive government.  

Contrast this with recent events in New Zealand. The New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) has just negotiated a pay award that will see registered nurses’ salaries grow by 12.5% by August 2019.

The NZNO has also achieved progress on safe staffing. By June 2021, all New Zealand health boards will be required to use a safe staffing tool, and the New Zealand government has agreed to provide $38 million (£19.6 million*) to recruit more nurses.

Beneficial factors

Three important factors help explain the NZNO success: they used direct industrial action; the New Zealand economy is in relatively good shape; and the nurses’ union sat across the bargaining table from a left-of-centre coalition government. 

The New Zealand government was under political pressure because of the industrial action, had access to resources, and may also have been more disposed to listen and act than their counterparts at Westminster.

A ‘classic’ trade union approach, involving industrial action, has paid dividends for nurses in New Zealand. This suggests that unions can continue to have a purpose, but only if the government is responsive, or can be forced to respond.

* Currency conversion correct as of August 2018


James Buchan is professor in the faculty of health and social sciences at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh 

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