Since coming to power in March 2011 the NSW Liberal-National government has unleashed a torrent of attacks on workers. While these attacks mount, the Labor-dominated leadership of Unions NSW has utterly failed to provide the necessary industrial and political strategy to fight off these cuts.
So far, about 5,000 of the proposed 15,000 jobs have been cut. $1.7 billion has been cut from education, $3 billion from health, and similar amounts stolen from injured workers through WorkCover changes.
On top of a 2.5% cap on wage increases (a cut in real terms), in August the O’Farrell government announced that it would seek to directly slash the pay and conditions of about 80,000 workers in the state’s public sector through changes to state awards.
Further, the government has refused to implement ‘equal pay’ increases due to around 30,000 community sector workers, and imposed a 1.2% spending cap on all government agencies despite demand for services increasing. O’Farrell has now also introduced legislation that would further undermine the ability of unions to respond, reducing collective bargaining rights and even the right to strike.
Where the union leaders have acted, it has been because of massive pressure from an angry rank-and-file who instinctively sense the need to fight back. This mood was highlighted on October 25, when a hoax email from the NSW Education boss to 100,000 employees – calling for direct action in response to the latest attacks on education – met with groundswell of excited support (and disbelief).
A half-day stop-work on October 8 by public sector workers further demonstrated this mood. This action involved at least 10,000 participants in 48 locations around the state, despite a NSW Industrial Relations Commission order that the union ‘refrain’ from strike action. It also shows that anti-worker laws and rulings can be brushed aside by mass action.
Despite this success, the union leaders have refused to set a date for new strike action. Instead, some unions have opted for a series of work bans. While such bans have a place, it is clear that to win an escalation of struggle is required.
On the day of the strike the government were forced to announce that a new WorkCover payments cap would no longer apply retrospectively. When firefighters went on strike in June, it resulted in them being exempted from the WorkCover changes all together.
Although modest, these examples are glimpses of what would be possible if unions united and adopted a program of concerted and sustained industrial action. Such a program should include the immediate planning of a new 24-hour strike, with mass protests in Sydney and other centres. This day of action could then serve as a focal point for uniting the struggles of all unions and workers under attack.
Recently a new, more progressive, leadership has been elected in the NSW Public Service Association (PSA) – the main public sector union. Hopefully they will change tack and step up the industrial campaign.
With the right strategy, the union movement has the potential to bring down the O’Farrell government. The fact that such an obvious and historically proven strategy hasn’t even been sounded out points to the need to simultaneously build a political alternative to the pro-ALP politics that currently dominate the unions.
By W. van Leeuwen