It was like a big street party thrown by the New Zealand Nurses Organisation — about 500 people making a huge racket, enjoying music, drumming, dancing and chanting outside Whangarei Hospital.

If there were road signs nearby saying 'Quiet, hospital', none of the nurses and their supporters on the footpath or horn-honking supporters in passing traffic took any notice.

But for all the loud, lively, public demonstration by the purple picket line — the nurses' union's colour — the underlying feeling was not whether a big noise would lead to better pay, but that things had reached the point where nurses walked out on patients.

Nurses' strike: ''What do we want? More money. When do we want it? Now!''
Nurses' strike: ''What do we want? More money. When do we want it? Now!''

''To get to this point has been very, very difficult. Nurses don't like leaving their patients,'' Northland NZNO organiser Julie Governor said.

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''We've worked very hard with the managers to ensure life preserving services continue with minimal effect on patients. Everyone knows we wouldn't walk out unless we'd really been pushed to this point.''

Several nurses told the they felt for their bosses, who were also under pressure.

While many supported the nurses' claim, managers and senior nursing staff had to carry out the contingency plans, work on the wards themselves and reassure the public about patient and systems safety.

''The public understand,'' one nurse said. ''Everyone knows we've been screwed over for years.''

Northland Director of Nursing and Midwifery, Margareth Broodkoorn said emergency departments and clinical teams had managed well during the strike.

"Emergency departments are relatively quiet and occupancy is slightly lower than expected," Broodkoorn said yesterday afternoon.

"Our contingencies have worked well so far so. To our clinical teams, NZNO members providing life preserving services and our army of volunteers – thank you."

The health board employs 1500 nurses, midwives and healthcare assistants, with about 1200 taking strike action.

The picket line outside the hospital precinct, which also houses the district health board offices, was from 7am until 10am, and again from 2pm until 5pm.

Julie Governor said local organisers had hoped for more affected Northland nurses, midwives and health assistants to be on the picket line.

Similar demonstrations took place outside the board's other hospitals in Dargaville, Kawakawa and Kaitaia.

Joining the Whangarei line yesterday were officials from other unions, Labour and other political parties and people from health-associated sectors, such as social workers.

The first nationwide nurses' strike since 1989 follows a stalemate between NZNO's demand for more pay and parity and Government health bosses' saying there was no money to spare.

The talks broke down earlier this week over the fourth offer from DHBs, worth $500 million, which would see all nurses receive a pay rise of at least 9.5 per cent in the next year. The nurses said they wanted more money and improved conditions.

A basic degree takes three years and costs about $7000. The diploma of enrolled nursing costs about $6600 for 18 months' study.

At present, newly trained nurses start on $49,449. Under the latest rejected deal their base start salary would be $50,932.

Yearly pay increases mean that after five years nurses earn $67,000. Under the rejected deal, with an added step, the new top base salary would be $77,386.

Senior nurses would earn up to $93,000 but the NZNO said that would require a full-time workload, overtime and weekend and night work.