At least 35,000 NSW public sector workers rallied in the Sydney Domain and then marched past the NSW parliament in Macquarie Street on September 8 to protest against the attacks on public sector jobs, wages and conditions announced by state Coalition government of Premier Barry O’Farrell, which includes a decision to axe at least 5000 public sector jobs.
The same day, 67,000 NSW government school teachers carried out a 24-hour strike, ignoring an Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) order for their union, the NSW Teachers Federation (NSWTF), to contact its members and to discourage them from taking action in protest against the O’Farrell government’s legislation to cap public sector wage rises to 2.5% per annum, despite the official Consumer Price Index currently rising at 3.6% per year.
The NSWTF has argued that the Farrell government’s new wages policy means an effective pay cut for public school teachers of about $75 a week after four years for an experienced teacher. Under the government’s policy, pay rises above the cap depend on increasing teacher workloads. The NSWTF is the first union to take strike action against the O’Farrell government’s attempt to impose a 2.5% cap on public sector workers’ wage rises. The previous state Labor government also attempted to impose a 2.5% cap on wage rises for the 400,000 NSW public sector workers.
In June, Unions NSW launched a campaign against the O’Farrell government’s legislation which states that the IRC “must, when making or varying any award or order, give effect to any policy on conditions of employment of public sector employees”. Twelve thousand public sector workers took part in a rally in Sydney on June 15 as part of this campaign.
At the June 15 rally, ACTU secretary Jeff Lawrence and Unions NSW secretary Mark Lennon focused their opposition on the O’Farrell government’s undermining of the supposed independence of the “industrial umpire”. 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.
The union officials are fearful that workers will begin openly to defy the IRC, as the teachers did on September 8, becoming 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 developing a real industrial campaign to bring down O’Farrell’s anti-worker laws.