Health Workers Should Lose Right to Strike

July 11, 2008

Otago District Health Board Chief Medical Officer Richard Bunton  says health workers, like police, should lose their right to strike.

He is commenting on the release of investigations by Health & DIsability Commissioner Ron Paterson into complaints over two deaths during the 20006 strike by medical radiation technologists, on which I blogged yesterday.

Mr Bunton said changing the system “has to happen” so that health service workers were covered by legislation, like police officers and not be allowed to strike.

He would expect the definition of health services to be fairly broad, covering any health work which was essential for delivering good patient care.  It would be a matter of “sitting down and working out a mechanism to settle salaries”.

I am sure this would have public support but at least one union isn’t keen.

Association of Salaried Medical Specialists executive director Ian Powell said Mr Bunton’s suggestion was ” throwing the baby out with the bath water”.

Mr Bunton said he accepted that his views would be controversial and would be met with an “interesting debate”.

It was rubbish to suggest strikes did not affect patient care.

No matter what words or niceties were used to explain what happened during strikes, there was no way that staff could deliver the same level of care when the usual processes and checks and balances were not there, he said.

They also cause extra work and put additional strain on alreay overstretched colleagues who aren’t on strike.

Mr Bunton said it was likely situations similar to those in Dunedin Hospital had occurred elsewhere. If Mr Paterson, the watchdog of patient rights, was making a strong statement about the risks to patients during strikes, the Government was obliged to “have a damn good look at it”.

Speaking from the United Kingdom, Mr Powell said Mr Bunton’s suggestion was not helpful. It would involve going “down to an arbitrationist system”, which he did not believe would be favoured by health workers.

Some perspective was needed about industrial action in the health sector. While there was a perception health was riddled with strikes, that was not the case.

 Mr Paterson was raising pertinent questions which should be considered by the health sector in general – not just the minister – but such consideration should not be a “knee-jerk” reaction, Mr Powell said.

The system doesn’t have to be riddled with strikes for striking to cause an unacceptable level of risk.


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