Essential workers versus the NSW state government
Essential workers versus the NSW state government)

Nurses, paramedics, train drivers, railway workers and teachers have all taken industrial action in NSW over the last twelve months. The Daily Telegraph has dubbed 2022 the “year of the strike”, while the Sydney Morning Herald, in an article written by Deborah Snow on 21 February, warns of an “autumn of discontent”:

“The unrest is being driven by a combustible mix of rising inflation (now outstripping the paltry wage rises of the last couple of years), simmering anger at the coalition’s legislated 2.5 percent cap on annual wage rises, impatience with the never-ending efficiency dividends imposed on the public service, and the exhaustion of front-line workers who’ve borne the brunt of supporting the public through the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Essential workers in the public sector have borne the brunt of the pandemic response. Nurses have worked long hours in overcrowded hospitals during multiple COVID waves, teachers have had to adapt quickly to remote learning, sometimes for months on end, and transport workers risked their own health to keep working through the lockdowns. They have all faced enormous pressure from the state government and some media outlets not to be “selfish” and strike during a national crisis. But they refused to buckle to the pressure; teachers, nurses and railway workers have set the example for workers across NSW by taking strike action, and they have been cheered on by the public.

Despite this industrial action, there have as yet been few wins for essential workers. The NSW government is belligerently holding the line on its wage caps, and the leaders of the public sector unions have been unwilling to organise the kind of action necessary to defeat the government.

In December last year, thousands of teachers took part in the first strike organised by the NSW Teachers Federation in a decade. The strike drew attention to the stagnant wages of teachers and the crisis levels of understaffing in schools. There was considerable public support for the teachers’ demands, a September YouGov poll showing that 57 percent supported a pay rise of at least 5 percent a year for teachers, compared to 28 percent who backed the government’s position of capping increases at 2.5 percent.

However, following this successful action, the Teachers Federation promised the state government that it will not take any further industrial action in the first term of the 2022 school year, throwing away the advantage it had gained from the December strike.

Nurses and midwives in NSW have proved more willing to take on the state government. After a spate of industrial action in June last year—including walk-offs at hospitals across Western Sydney and actions by ambulance drivers and members of the Health Services Union—the NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association organised a strike on 15 February.

This was a great success, with nurses and midwives striking at more than 150 hospitals across the state. Much like the teachers, this was the first state-wide strike of nurses in NSW for a decade. Nurses at the rally in Sydney seemed ready to keep striking, as was previously reported in Red Flag: “Towards the end of the rally, the speaker asked the crowd to raise their hand if they were prepared to strike again to achieve their demands. To cheers, everyone in the crowd raised their hand”.

The railway workers in the Rail, Tram, and Bus Union (RTBU) are the third main public sector union fighting the NSW government over pay. Their actions started last September with a four-hour strike, followed by an eight-hour strike in December and a series of overtime bans, all of which have caused major disruptions for the transportation network. The NSW government pushed back against this industrial action by locking out railway workers last week.

While a big step forward, these actions have not been enough to force the NSW government to back down over the cap on public sector wages.

In many ways, this confrontation is a repeat of the industrial situation in NSW over a decade ago, in 2011—the last time that a group of public sector unions took industrial action. Back then, Liberal then-Premier Barry O’Farrell first introduced the 2.5 percent annual growth cap on public sector wages, which continues to this day. In response, a series of one-day strikes and days of action was called by the unions, including a 30,000-strong protest of striking teachers, public servants, firefighters and nurses on 8 September 2011.

When these actions didn’t force O’Farrell to abandon the wage cap and the Industrial Relations Commission started issuing fines, the leaders of the public sector unions gave up on any further strikes. For instance, the Teachers Federation had called another strike for 29 November—which was endorsed at a mass meeting of teachers at the beginning of November—but the Federation officials called it off when O’Farrell offered them a 2.5 percent wage increase.

As NSW teacher Heidi Claus wrote in Socialist Alternative magazine at the time:

“By backing away from the strike endorsed by teachers at the start of the month, the union is sending a message to O’Farrell that he holds all the cards, and to the teachers that our leaders are not prepared to fight. The only effect this can have is to de-mobilise and demoralise.”

And that’s exactly what happened. The public sector unions gave up on industrial action for the next decade. Instead, they put their hopes in electing an ALP government in first the 2015 and then 2019 state elections—both of which the Liberals won.

Today, the growing frustration with stagnant wages, the renewed pressure on essential public sector workers due to COVID and the arrival of the next round of public sector enterprise bargaining have reopened a fight between the unions and the state government.

The danger now is that the leaders of the unions will again back down from organising more consistent strike action, which is necessary to defeat the state government.

More strikes would of course increase the likelihood of legal action against the unions. This has already occurred, with the NSW Industrial Relations Commission ordering teachers not to strike in December last year and ruling at the last minute that the 15 February nurses strike was illegal. The Fair Work Commission banned strike action by train drivers in 2018 and continues to harass railway workers in the current EBA industrial campaign.

Considering these challenges, it can appear that the easier way to defeat the cap on wages is just to wait until the next state election and kick the Liberals out. This is reinforced by recent polling showing that the ALP leader Chris Minns is now ahead of Premier Dominic Perrottet.

But a Labor state government cannot be relied on to end the wage cap, let alone advance the interests of workers more generally. While Minns has criticised the Liberals, he has been ambiguous about what he would do with public sector wages if elected. On 8 December 2021, Minns told 2GB radio that while he would “negotiate” with rather than “attack” the teachers’ union, he wouldn’t agree to the full log of claims from the Teachers Federation, and in particular “can’t commit” to the 7.5 percent pay increase they are demanding.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that for sixteen years the NSW ALP ran a notoriously corrupt, neoliberal and socially conservative state government that privatised everything it could get its hands on and consistently rejected workers’ demands. In her final months in office, former ALP Premier Kristina Keneally rejected a wage rise claim from nurses, which laid the basis for O’Farrell’s wage cap. Part of the explanation for the Liberals managing to cling to power in NSW for so long, despite a seemingly endless series of corruption scandals and leadership changes, is the lasting memory of the years of right-wing ALP control over the state, particularly for older people.

Public sector workers need to look to their own industrial power to challenge whoever controls the NSW government.

Workers in NSW have previously been in a stronger position to challenge state governments due to their greater willingness to take consistent strike action. This was possibly because of the existence of a vibrant socialist working-class movement in NSW throughout much of the twentieth century—Sydney was often the centre of political radicalism and unionism in Australia. Both the militant Industrial Workers of the World and the Communist Party of Australia had the bulk of their membership in Sydney and a significant influence among militant workers, particularly in what was known as the Red Belt of industrial suburbs that stretched from Redfern and Newtown down to Mascot and Botany. This was reinforced by a strong socialist base among workers in Newcastle and Wollongong, and in the NSW coal mines.

These socialist workers were willing to defy the conservatism and moderation of their union leaders. Shop committees in the Eveleigh and Chullora railway workshops, White Bay power station, the Sydney mail room and elsewhere brought together workers from across different job roles. They were often established by socialist union activists, and as Hal Alexander, a Communist Party organiser in the Red Belt during the 1940s and ’50s, explained in A Few Rough Reds: Stories of rank and file organising: “some union bureaucrats regarded all this as a threat to their hegemony. Quite rightly too. That was the beauty of it”.

Rebuilding a militant workers’ movement capable of winning back our rights and conditions in NSW is intertwined with the revival of an organised and dedicated socialist movement. There are some organised socialists on the railways and in the hospitals (most of whom originally became socialists as activists on university campuses) who have played a role in the recent strikes. If we had hundreds, rather than a handful, of socialists in workplaces across the state, we would be in a much stronger position not only to defeat the wage cap, but also to begin reigniting the seeds of revolt seen in past decades.

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