NSW Coalition launches attack on public sector workers

NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell’s Liberal-National Coalition government has launched a major attack on public sector workers. The government’s planned $2 billion in savings over the next four years is to come from cutbacks in public sector workers’ wages and conditions.

The government has set a maximum 2.5% wage increase for public sector workers. Inflation is running at 3.3%. Any wage claim above 2.5% has compulsory trade-offs attached. According to the Unions NSW “Summary of the NSW industrial relations changes”, these forced trade-offs will cut back on “annual leave loading; defined benefit superannuation; picnic days, local fair days and public service bank holidays; flex leave; 35 hour week; 5 days carer’s leave; 15 days sick leave per year of service; overtime; all allowances, including shift allowances and meal money; lunch breaks; training leave and study assistance; and redundancy provisions”.

Wage increases will not be backdated. “Even WorkChoices guaranteed casual loadings and maximum hours of work”, noted the Unions NSW summary.

The NSW Industrial Relations Commission’s new role is to support the government’s policies, stripping the IRC of its “independence”. The IRC must now comply with any regulation of the government in setting wages and conditions of public sector employees. NSW finance minister Greg Pearce will have the power to review or alter any award under the new IR laws approved by the Coalition-dominated parliament on June 17.

Unions’ response

In opposition to these major attacks, a rally of 12,000 public sector workers took place outside the NSW parliament on June 15. Nurses, firefighters and some other unions stopped worked to attend the rally. Union delegates’ meetings are currently taking place throughout the state to oppose the public sector attacks.

But differences have emerged among unions and between some unions and Unions NSW about how to fight the attacks. The message coming from Unions NSW is not to organise a campaign of industrial action and strikes. At the June 15 rally, Unions NSW officials called for a campaign to oust the O’Farrell government in four years, at the next state election in 2015. This is despite the obvious large-scale anger among public sector workers and the apparent willingness of rank-and-file workers to resist.

At the June 15 rally, Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Jeff Lawrence and Unions NSW secretary Mark Lennon focused their opposition to the new laws on the undermining of the supposed independence of the IRC. Lawrence read a letter to the rally from Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard, in which she was presented as a champion of the “independence” of the industrial courts. Gillard’s letter said there had to be “efficiency” in the public sector, i.e., cost cutting. NSW Labor Party leader John Robertson was booed and jeered off the stage when he appeared at Lennon’s invitation.

The union officials are fearful that workers will begin openly to defy the IRC, become more confident in their ability to organise and take action collectively — which might bring into question the role of industrial courts and union officials’ reliance on them instead of democratically developing a real industrial campaign to bring down O’Farrell’s anti-worker laws.

A union campaign focused on getting the ALP re-elected would be the death knell for the rights of public sector workers and the campaign to oppose the laws.

The system of arbitration and the industrial courts have been used by both employers and the Laborite trade union bureaucracy to divert and prevent struggles for wages and conditions from developing into more overt forms of class struggle. Presented as an “independent umpire”, these industrial courtsĀ  pretend that employers and employees are on an equal footing.