Like most in my trade I have done time on the industrial relations round. Unlike most, I had a tragic need to understand the issues in disputes.

The union side was usually happy to talk about issues in the context of any action it was taking or threatening, the employers less so. Better reporters sussed quicker than I did that the action was the only news and there was little point dwelling on the cause.

There was little point, as I eventually realised, because at the end of the action you are unlikely to find out how, or even if, the problem was solved. Once a dispute was settled neither side would discuss the settlement in detail and it was no longer news anyway.

All this comes back to me every time Deborah Powell takes her "junior doctors" out on strike, ostensibly over the rosters they work in public hospitals.


I don't know how many times over the years we have seen action on this issue when the doctors' collective contract comes up for negotiation. We read that this week's 48-hour strike was the first since 2008. Time flies but it feels like we have been anguishing over the gruelling shifts young doctors work, and the fatigue they suffer, and the dangers to patients this poses, for as long as Powell has been running the Resident Doctors' Association, and that seems a lifetime.

She must think we are dimwits. The rosters might have been a credible reason to take the doctors out once, but not twice and certainly not more than that.

If doctors' working hours were a real problem why was it not fixed the first time? What happened the last time hospitals were disrupted, sick people were worried, elective surgery suspended, senior doctors were called in to provide cover at inordinate public expense and the airwaves were bristling with sympathy for the strike?

Did they end their action with nothing resolved? What did they get for calling it off if not a safe and satisfactory solution to their rosters? It just doesn't make sense.

These are not poor and vulnerable unskilled workers without much to bargain with. We're not talking cleaners or rest-home staff here. They are graduates with degrees that are fairly scarce in a profession that is adept at maintaining its scarcity, as we have seen this week in the opposition from the Auckland and Otago medical schools to Waikato University's application to provide a medical degree.

Graduates have to do eight to ten years as resident doctors in general hospitals before they are allowed to train to be specialists. They are in their mid-20s and early 30s, young enough to work hard and probably play hard but not so young that they can be easily pushed around.

If rosters are the real problem why were they not fixed the first time the union told us fatigue was the issue?


Later they look back on, as you do, a boot camp, a rite of passage. It gives them a grounding in real medicine where they meet myriad diseases and learn what is it make quick decisions under pressure before they move into a more interesting, prestigious and well-remunerated college of specialists.

When they look back they are liable to say, as one old doctor did in a letter to the Herald this month, "We accepted the long hours as part of the job".

The failure of successive generations of junior doctors to negotiate more sensible rosters suggests to me, they don't want to fix this problem. It's a useful pretext for public sympathy whenever they want a pay raise.

Back when this sort of nonsense was routine and strikes were daily news, employers' negotiators were hardened to it. But these days direct action is almost unheard of except in the state sector, and there it is usually in health and education where strict unionism and nationwide bargaining survives.

Deborah Powell deals with negotiators for all the district health boards and refreshingly, the boards' spokesperson, Julie Patterson, is clearly not accustomed to the propaganda put out by the union for tactical purposes. Patterson looked not only frustrated but genuinely upset on television as she tried to tell reporters the issue was not rosters but pay.

The constant claims that doctors were working under extreme fatigue, to the point that the safety of patients was at risk was undermining confidence in the health system, she said. "It's just despicable really."

It really is. She says the boards are willing to reduce the doctors' 12-day shifts but the doctors want the same pay.

When this is settled it would be interesting to know whether the shifts or the pay has proved to be of more concern to them. But watch whether Powell will say after the inevitable settlement the roster is now safe and satisfactory at long last.

I'll wager we'll not know whether the roster or pay proved more important until the next time this old nag is trotted out for another round of unthinking support.