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Radiation therapist strike not a special case

The radiation therapists’ union’s decision to strike is, without doubt, troublesome.  In fact, all strikes are troublesome.  Remember those secondary school teachers’ strikes in 2002?  Weren’t they a problem?  What about those Progressive Enterprises workers last year, resulting in that array of empty supermarket shelves?  Having any union walk off a job that is essential to our community poses difficulty.  The medical profession is no exception.

But why should the medical profession be singled out as morally irresponsible?  If the argument is that they are playing with people’s lives, then weren’t the teachers playing with people’s futures?  Is there some inherent assumption that doctors should not need to demand certain working conditions?  The alternative is their being overworked, underpaid and underresourced, and therefore, probably not able to perform their life-saving tasks to the same standard.  In any case, the profession is well aware of their commitment to provide essential services during the strike.  But we can go with the health of a few patients in hospitals now, or all patients that pass through there for the next few decades.  Tough call.

A view often held is that the pay claims should not come before patients’ lives.  Supporters of this view must either draw a line somewhere, or realise it for all cases.  Let us take the extreme hypothetical example of DHBs halving the pay of radiation therapists, or refusing to allow rises for the next decade.  Should the patients still take precedence?  What about all those potential radiation therapists who, upon seeing the conditions offered, flatly refuse to enter the job in the first place?  We already have a shortage in health professionals in this country.  In this case, at least, surely the long-term benefits of having a stable network of radiation therapists outweigh a few weeks of disputes.

Then, where is the line to be drawn?  It is quite simple, really, and this holds true for all strikes, medical, educational or otherwise: a strike should only be carried out when the costs of it are outweighed by the costs of its omission.  Now, some might argue, this is the case here.  But this is not a case of “you want, we want”, nor is it a case of, “we want to be richer”.  This is a group of professionals struggling to save their profession.  As Bishop Richard Randerson acknowledged, the issues in the strike are more than just pay.  They include, among others, “recruitment and retention of staff” and “the adequacy of government funding”.

A fuller understanding of the issue must be gained before the radiation therapists are slammed as morally irresponsible.  The strike is of signficant cost to the community, to say the least, but if anything, the responsibility lies with both sides to work to resolve the issue.  The therapists, at least, appear to be taking more proaction with negotiations than the DHBs.  But in a continued inability to resolve the dispute, it is clear that government intervention would be beneficial.

The government might be reluctant to step into industrial disputes, and wisely so, but if it cares about its citizens and their health and lives—both present and future—it will step in to make it very clear that parties must work forward rather than in circles.  A proactive government would grow sick of this, as we all—including the disputants—are, and offer to do something about it.

But we must be careful not to apply different standards to the health profession than to other professions.  Their strikes are and should be governed by the same fundamental principles of cost-benefit as all other strikes.  The fact that these people are saving lives introduces additional costs, but it does not constitute an exception, and they have as much right to take industrial action as other workers do.  And like all strikes, the sooner resolved, the better.

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