Viking Women are famous for their success in defending themselves from maurading hordes. Freydis Eiriksdottir, pictured above,
first gained notoriety by fighting off a band of Vinlanders by herself while pregnant!

Close to 50 VAHPA members, representing the 30 Stand Alone Community Health Centres (CHCs) across Victoria, met last night to discuss and debate various aspects of the ongoing industrial campaign in the sector.

Of central concern was the ‘form’ of the agreement or agreements. What does that mean I hear everyone ask… and why is it relevant to us you say… stick with me comrades and all will become clear.

For some months now VAHPA and the VHIA have been sparring around the type of industrial agreement that the parties would be bargaining for. The reason that this issue is so important is that has a profound impact on the power relationships underpinning negotiations.

If the VHIA were successful in compelling VAHPA to bargain for a multi-enterprise agreement then members would not have access to the threat of, or fact of, industrial action. This would seriously disempower the union and place us in an invidious bargaining position. In fact, this very issue set bargaining back many months during the last round of negotiations. It wasn’t until VAHPA forced bargaining on a site specific basis, thus gaining access to industrial action, that real progress was made.

Community Health Members vote unanimously in support of a deal to genuinely progress bargaining from a position of strength.  

This structure, borne of a unique legislative frame and an array of case law, is not specific to VAHPA, it is a matter of concern for all unions. To make matters worse, it is a moving feast; each time a decision of relevance is handed down there is a fair chance that it will impact on the standards used to interpret the legislation. Thus, the scenario we face in this round of bargaining is different (and less favourable to unions) than the scenario we faced in the previous bargaining round. Notwithstanding that the legislation remains the same!

Irrespective, it is here that the decision to pursue Majority Support Determinations, and they require many many hours of work, proved to be the correct one. On Tuesday 15 August, two days prior to the mass meeting, VAHPA and the VHIA conferred before Commissioner Cribb. The conference was set down as a means to progress the majority support determination process for Connect Health & Community (formerly Bentleigh Bayside Community Health).

A successful Majority Support Determination would facilitate bargaining for a single enterprise agreement at each employer and thus would put industrial action back on the table as a tool available to workers. It is worth noting that the right to strike has long been understood as a means by which employees are able to go some way towards allaying the financial and managerial power of their employer. The option of protected industrial action does not level the playing field for workers but it certainly helps.

Fortunately the discussion took a turn for the sensible. The issue of the Majority Support was put on the back burner while the parties attended to the real issue: how do we get down to the nitty gritty of bargaining as soon as possible without either party being disadvantaged or prejudiced.

To this end, the following tentative deal was struck:

B2017/594 Resolution

VHIA and VAHPA will recommend the following resolution to its community health members:

1. The Health Services Union Victoria No. 3 Branch (the Union), the Victorian Hospitals’ Industrial Association (VHIA) and the registered Community Health Centres (CHCs) the VHIA represents agree to engage in concurrent negotiations for:

  1. a multi-enterprise agreement covering all CHCs the VHIA represents; and
  2. single-enterprise agreements for each CHC the VHIA represents.

2. Each CHC the VHIA represents will issue a Notice of Employee Representational Rights for a single enterprise agreement for their CHC in accordance with section 173 of the Fair Work Act 2009.

3. The Union will not make an application for a Protected Action Ballot Order in relation to a single-enterprise agreement for a CHC the VHIA represents prior to 24 January 2018.

4. The parties will hold regular fortnightly bargaining meetings unless otherwise agreed, the first of which will take place on Thursday 24 August 2017 from 10am to 2pm. At this meeting the date and times of further bargaining meetings will be set.

5. The VHIA will write to the Union and confirm that the concurrent negotiations bargaining meetings that take place will be bargaining meetings for both:

  1. a multi-enterprise agreement covering all CHCs the VHIA represents; and
  2. single-enterprise agreements for each CHC the VHIA represents;

and that this does not constitute pattern bargaining.

6. The Union and/or the VHIA may decide that a matter or matters being negotiated in the concurrent negotiations need to be negotiated in separate bargaining meetings that are for a single-enterprise agreement for a specific individual CHC only, and in such a circumstance the Union and the VHIA will negotiate this matter or matters in separate meetings for a single-enterprise agreement for that individual CHC only. This in itself will not determine whether the bargaining outcome will be  a single-enterprise agreement or a multi-enterprise agreement.

7. The Union and the VHIA will have regular report backs on the progress of negotiations with Commissioner Cribb, the first of which will occur after the 4th bargaining meeting. At this first report back, further report backs will be agreed upon.

Let us now return to the mass meeting….

After some two hours of lively discussion and planning the meeting put and adopted the following resolution unanimously:

The meeting, having given due consideration to Resolution B2017/594, that is, the arrangement negotiated between VAHPA and the VHIA at the Fair Work Commission on Tuesday 15 August before Commissioner Cribb, endorses the proposal as put in the document and as circulated at this meeting.

The parties now have a genuine opportunity to put the preliminaries aside and to set about working together constructively to ensure the best outcome for Community Health, Allied Health Professionals and their patients.

There is a special feeling that comes from working in genuine solidarity with others especially if the desired outcome is of real social value. I felt that feeling last night and I am sure many others did likewise. In short, the mood at the end of the meeting was, like a graceful Viking longship, buoyant.