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WA's nurses union and a Labor government are at loggerheads. How did it come to this?

The Australian Nursing Federation has again appeared before WA's Industrial Relations Commission, after spending the weekend flouting orders made by the industrial umpire.

After more than a month of at-times bitter negotiations between the federation (ANF) and the state government for a new pay and conditions deal, an "in-principle" agreement was reached early last week, with ANF chief executive Mark Olson making the announcement.

The offer, understood to have included a small increase in pay allowance for certain level nurses as well as changes to the ANF's key demand for nurse-to-patient ratios, was contingent on the union calling off planned industrial action. 

On October 12, an ANF meeting of more than 2,000 members saw it agree to begin escalating industrial action that would expand with each week negotiations continued, and move through a number of stages.

A fortnight of day-long stoppages at various hospitals was the fifth stage of the action and had been due to begin the day after the in-principle offer was agreed to.

But within days, the union had backflipped after strident opposition to the offer from its members.

Commission orders end to ballot

Speaking before entering the commission yesterday afternoon, ANF secretary Janet Reah all but pointed the finger of blame for the backflip at Mr Olson, who stepped down as ANF secretary in May after 24 years in the job.

"Initially, Mark Olson — with his experience — we decided as a group that he would lead the negotiations," she said.

"I didn't agree with the offer, but I didn't want to interfere at that point because I was trusting that Mark knew how the membership would react. We misjudged that, the royal 'we'.

"I was silent for two days following that offer and the membership spoke loud and clear in that two days, and that's when I came out and I said, 'Right, I am now leading the negotiations, I am at the top of the chain, and I will be dealing with things henceforth'."

On Friday, the Commission ordered the ANF to defer a vote on the government's latest deal, and to not advocate for or against the offer. 

They were orders Ms Reah seemed unconcerned to have flouted.

"I don't think they'll be best pleased with our actions, but we're refusing to be gagged. The ANF Council is refusing to be gagged and our members are refusing to be gagged," she said. 

"The government's called us back into the commission regarding our, as they call it, flouting of the orders that were issued Friday.

"They're not best pleased with our actions over the weekend, but we're not best pleased with the government's treatment of the nurses and midwives."

Minister denies seeking gag order 

Yesterday morning, Health Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson said she was focused on trying to get a good outcome for the state's nursing and midwifery workforce.

"What we have put on the table for nurses and midwives is historic reform around managing their workload, and that is nurse-to-patient ratios, this is a reform that the ANF has sought for decades," she told 6PR radio.

"At no point has the government ever sought to gag the ANF, ever.

"Those orders were put in place by the commissioner because of the conduct of the ANF itself.

"And I hope that the ANF are able to move through the internal conflicts that they are experiencing at the moment and put their members first and foremost."

Not the first WA Labor-ANF dispute

While Ms Reah is now the face of the ANF — the "top of the chain" as she said yesterday — her predecessor, Mr Olson, has some history in dealing with these types of "bitter" negotiations.

And while the Labor Party is generally seen as being the party for the unions, ruptures between WA Labor and the ANF are not unheard of.

Ahead of the state election in February 2005, the ANF had been locked in pay negotiations with the then-Labor government, led by premier Geoff Gallop, for almost a year.

In a surprise move, opposition leader Colin Barnett struck a deal of sorts with Mr Olson, agreeing to terms to end the nurses dispute if it won the election, in return for the ANF urging its members to support the coalition's candidates at the poll.

While Mr Olson later denied reports that he told nurses they should vote for the coalition, the ANF continued to attempt to put pressure on the government.

This transcript from ABC's AM radio program on the 17th February, 2005, explains some of what went on.

"The Nursing Federation in Western Australia has voted to go on strike next week, only three days out from the state election," the story began. 

"And in a further blow to the Labor premier, Geoff Gallop, nurses, contesting six marginal seats in the poll, have decided to put Labor last on their voting cards.

"The Nursing Federation's secretary says the Labor government has shown 'utter contempt' for nurses, and the federation has already negotiated a deal for better wages and conditions with the Liberal Party."

The strike was called off days before the state election, Labor was re-elected, and a deal was later agreed to.

After Ms Reah's comments that she is now in charge of negotiations, the current dispute will perhaps see less air time given to Mr Olson, although when it ends and where it ends up is still unknown.

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