Sanity in doctors’ salary setting… please!

Recently, Health and Disability Commissioner Ron Paterson is reported to have stated, “It is an incontrovertible fact that patient safety is jeopardized during strikes by health professionals.”*

The NZ Orthopaedic Society has now called for strikes to be replaced by compulsory arbitration. (Though various news media played it up as a “ban strikes” story, putting their usual anti-union spin on it. Hat-tip: homepaddock.)

We used to have arbitration of pay disputes in the public sector until the neo-liberal firestorm of the late 1980s. Arbitration of public sector pay-setting disputes is common overseas, because in the public sector the boss makes the rules. Imagine trying to negotiate with someone who can legislate any outcome they want.

Further, public sector employers have very little control over the amount of money they have to pay their staff. They take what they’re allocated, or try to sell more services at prices determined by the government.

Meanwhile, the government pretends that pay-setting has nothing to do with them, despite setting the budgets that determine wage levels. The current government tried this ruse early on, but came to accept the reality of the situation. Hence settlements for nurses, academics and low-paid health sector workers have been made with the government as a party.

It’s time for some sanity in public sector pay setting. It’s a shame that something wasn’t done nine years ago. However, there appears to be widespread support for arbitration in the heath sector, and maybe that might serve as a model for the wider public sector later.

[*Actually, I can’t find this quote in the report itself (here — pdf), which says, “This case is further evidence of the potential harm to which patients are inevitably exposed during strikes by health professionals.”]

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2 Responses to “Sanity in doctors’ salary setting… please!”

  1. homepaddock Says:

    You seem to have read into the reports an attack on workers and unions which is not there. People are calling for a better way than strikes to solve disputes for health professionals. If there is an error, it is of omission because it is not made clear that the right to strike would be replaced by arbitration or something similar.

    But there is no attack on unions nor an attempt to leave workers without legal protection.

    I agree with you that public sector employers have little control over their budgets for wages, that it is ridiculous for governments to pretend pay-setting has nothing to do with them; that it’s time for sanity in public sector pay setting and that compulosry arbitration – or something like the Higher Salaries Commission for health workers, which was suggested by Bioethics Centre director Donald Evans yesterday, would be a good start.

  2. MacDoctor Says:

    Good post, JP. And you hit the nail on the head. It is the government that sets the salaries of health workers by not only setting the budget, but also dictating the outputs, thereby severely curtailing DHB negotiating ability. Strikes are therefore an inevitable result. It is impossible for the DHBs to negotiate in good faith – they already have a fixed negotiating point.

    I have no problem with compulsory arbitration, as long as there is a genuinely independent arbitrator available. With the current level of penetration of politics into public service, I am dubious that such a person exists.

    The other possibility is enabling proxy strikes – where the ancilliary staff such as cleaners, food workers or admin go on strike on behalf of the health workers with direct patient care responsibilities. This is how it used to work in South Africa and it was very effective.

    Of course, unless the government actually comes to the table and negotiates directly, you are not going to improve the situation, no matter what you come up with.

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