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Nurses buck unions’ demise

Article from: AFR.Com/Financial Review

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As union leaders despair over their shrinking membership, one organisation, the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, is defying the shift of workers away from organised labour.

Over the past two years, the federation’s membership has grown by 12 per cent to 249,000, making it the nation’s largest union. There are some obvious reasons for its growth. Employment in the health and aged-care sector has been strong, giving the union a large recruiting pool.

Nursing is the country’s most trusted profession, with the union attracting significant public support when pursuing community campaigns around health and aged-care funding. But the federation has also made conscious political and industrial decisions that officials believe have been factors in its success.

The union is not affiliated to the Labor Party and its public brand has not been eroded by the pursuit of mergers with other unions.

“One of the issues that we point to that we think has something to do with our success is that during the 80s and 90s, when there were amalgamations of unions, we stayed true to our membership,”  the union’s federal secretary Lee Thomas said.

“We have remained, in the old terms, almost a craft union in many respects.

“I think what we have done with our name points to our membership so we are visible.

“If people want to join our union and they are a nurse or a midwife or an assistant in nursing, then we are the union to join. I don’t know if sometimes with amalgamations, it is so easy to identify that.”

The Australian Council of Trades Unions has been having discussions about the need for new membership models, including incentives for potential new members, especially young workers. But the federation already has an advanced strategy to attract members. Union organisers are active at universities and TAFE institutes, offering free or heavily discounted membership to student nurses.

Once they start employment, nurses are asked to commit to paying full fees. The average fee is $650 a year. As well as industrial representation, the federation pays the professional indemnity insurance required by nurses as part of their registration. It funds low-cost professional education courses, provides legal advice and, like many unions, access to discounted consumer goods.

“We say there are a number of reasons why we have grown,”  Ms Thomas said.

“The foundation of membership is about how hard we work with our members in the areas in which they work to promote the delivery of health care and aged care, and to make their working lives better.

“There is no silver bullet to this. It is hard work and our branches work really, really diligently with members to campaign for health care and their working lives but also the promotion of the mainstream industrial and professional agendas that we run.”

The union has connected with its membership through strong campaigning on issues that are of significant concern to the broader community, including aged care, Medicare and patient welfare.

It has a database of 50,000 supporters, most of whom are consumers of health services. They receive regular electronic bulletins from the union. “Nurses are the most trusted and respected profession,” Ms Thomas said. “They have a good reputation with the community.”