In late August, the New South Wales Liberal-National Government announced plans to slash the pay and conditions of an estimated 80,000 workers in the State’s public sector.
The government, led by Barry O’Farrell, has applied to the NSW Industrial Relations Commission to change 98 awards, affecting clerical staff, librarians, parks and gardens staff, school administration assistants, regulatory inspectors, legal officers and some nurses, amongst others.
Under the axe are hard fought for conditions including annual leave loading of 17.5%, sick leave entitlements, flexible work arrangements and parental leave. The plans would also cut penalty rates for all shift workers and allowances for staff stationed in remote areas.
In a state that is home to about a third of Australia’s population, this is a major attack on workers rights. If allowed to go through, lower wages and conditions in the public sector will put downward pressure on all wages as other governments and employers would look to follow suit. Not only has the stage been set for a race to the bottom, but also for further outsourcing and the privatisation of essential services.
This new attempt to undermine wages and conditions in NSW follows a $1.7 billion cut to education funding, a $3 billion cut to health, at least 15,000 job losses, the gutting of the injured workers’ scheme, a 2.5% cap on wage increases (a pay cut in real terms), and a 1.2% cap on all government agencies.
The union representing public sector employees, the NSW Public Service Association (PSA), has announced a half-day strike for early October. This is a step in the right direction. Fire fighters showed the potential to force the government to retreat when they went on strike in June. That action forced the government to exempt them from changes to WorkCover which would have left them worse off.
A half-day strike alone however will not be enough to stop the government in its tracks. The ALP-dominated leaderships of unions such as the PSA have only reluctantly called stop work action. This is only because they fear losing members’ support if they continue to be seen as doing nothing.
This reluctance to fight flows from the pro-business politics of the ALP. While the Federal ALP Government has come out against these particular cuts in NSW, they themselves have slashed over 4,000 jobs and cut public spending. The unions have been reluctant to highlight the cuts taking place at a Federal level for fear of damaging the party’s electoral prospects.
The truth is that the agenda of both the Liberals and Labor are near identical. There have been no promises by the ALP to reverse these cuts because they have no economic or political alternative.
Despite this the union leaders dishonestly claim that re-electing the ALP is the main way to stop the cuts. The only way to really put an end to the major parties undermining workers wages and conditions is to link a campaign of industrial action to a political campaign aimed at building a real political representation for workers.
Working people need fighting unions that are not connected to the pro-business ALP and their own party that unashamedly puts their interests first.
By W. van Leeuwen