New South Wales public sector workers on strike
New South Wales public sector workers on strike

Workers across the country are facing a largely one-sided class war. A combination of bosses raising prices on essential goods, the housing crisis and profiteering on the part of energy companies is leading to a cost-of-living crisis. Conditions are ripe for a fight back: unemployment is at historic lows, and bosses are so desperate for labour they’re trying to entice pensioners back to work. 

Yet there’s no indication that union peak bodies have an appetite for a fight. Unions NSW—the peak union body in New South Wales—has celebrated the paltry scraps offered by the new ALP government, while the secretary of the ACTU, Sally McManus, has rushed to reassure her Twitter followers that 1970s-style cross-industry wage rises—which workers won at the peak of union power in Australia—are a thing of the past.

In this context, the ongoing strikes in New South Wales are a very welcome and much-needed development. Across the state, nurses and midwives, public and Catholic school teachers, railway workers, road workers, public servants and university workers have all taken strike action. 

At the forefront of this small but significant uptick in struggle is the New South Wales Nurses and Midwives Association. This union is the largest in the state, with a membership of more than 70,000. In February, nurses and midwives took their first statewide strike action in nearly a decade. They have followed this with a further two days of statewide action, raising the stakes in their second strike to a 24-hour stoppage. Before the statewide actions, many individual branches of the union had taken their own industrial action, including walkouts at Hornsby Ku-ring-gai Hospital over plans to replace critical care nurses with less experienced assistants and, before that, actions at Blacktown and Westmead hospitals. 

The strikes have unleashed the anger of workers, who are burned out due to overwork and unsafe staffing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nurses and midwives have been campaigning for over a decade for legislated nurse to patient ratios in New South Wales. The pandemic has thrown a hospital system already on the brink of crisis into disarray, with staff shortages due to illness and hospitals overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients and a backlog of delayed care. 

Nurses aren’t angry just about working conditions. The pay in the industry is also appalling, partly because the workforce is dominated by women. Despite opposition from their leaders, rank-and-file nurses have successfully pushed to raise the pay claim of the union to 7 percent. An amendment moved by rank-and-file socialist activists in a mass members meeting in July rejected the Perrottet government’s 3 percent pay offer. 

The push to raise the pay claim was in opposition to the strategy put forward by the union’s leadership. While the officials wanted to continue to campaign for ratios, they argued to accept the Perrottet pay offer for this year. Rank-and-file activists won the vote twice—first in the July mass members meeting and then by an even greater margin on a branch-by-branch basis, after the officials forced a revote. Central to the argument of rank-and-file activists was that ratios and a real pay rise above inflation are not counterposed: nurses and midwives need to fight for both, and they need a serious strike campaign that can win regardless of who is in government. 

While the nurses and midwives union leaders’ support for strikes is welcome, their approach to the campaign is not a departure from the conciliatory approach that has led to decades of wage stagnation and worsening working conditions. Like most of the public sector unions, the officials’ strategy primarily revolves around electing a state ALP government. 

But it’s a hard sell convincing New South Wales unionists that Labor is on our side. NSW Labor are so right wing that they are yet to support a single one of the union’s demands. In fact, state ALP leader Chris Minns explicitly ditched Labor’s commitment to ratios, which was previously Labor election policy, claiming it is too expensive. Nor will Labor support an above-inflation pay rise for nurses, and Minns has been at pains to distance his party from public sector unions, telling striking teachers that their demands would not be met under a Labor government. 

Union officials in New South Wales are open to calling strikes and strengthening their demands precisely because their union’s negotiations are taking place under a Liberal government, and the state election is not until March next year. By contrast, in Victoria under the Andrews government, the latest public sector negotiations have been abysmal. The Victorian branch of the Australian Education Union rushed through an agreement last year with a pay rise of just 2 percent—a significant pay cut given inflation then was already at 5.1 percent. In an impressive display of opposition, nearly 40 percent of members voted against the deal. 

Federally, it’s the same problem: Treasurer Jim Chalmers has indicated the Albanese government expects workers to pay for the system’s inflationary crisis, arguing that workers must accept that real wages will go backwards until 2024, and the unions have demonstrated little willingness to challenge this. 

Yet wherever a lead is given, rank-and-file workers have shown themselves willing to demand more and fight for it. The strikes by nurses and midwives, teachers and transport workers should be an inspiration to unionists around the country. We desperately need more socialists and left-wing activists willing to challenge the current strategy of the most influential union leaders. 

In New South Wales, we will need sustained strike action to end the public sector pay cap and win real pay rises and better conditions. The pay cap introduced in 2011 will not be abandoned lightly—it’s an effective tool of the government and the bosses to suppress wages. When it was introduced, there was a campaign of strikes, and even joint stoppages by public sector unions against Liberal then Premier Barry O’Farrell, including a 30,000-strong protest of striking teachers, public servants, firefighters and nurses. But rather than continue a sustained campaign of escalating joint strike action, the unions backed down in the face of fines by the Industrial Relations Commission. Instead, they pinned their hopes on electing a Labor government. 

There must be a break from this strategy. Labor has made no promises to concede union demands, and state Labor governments across Australia have implemented their own public sector pay caps. We need a new approach that fights for workers’ rights regardless of which party is in charge, and which uses all the weapons available to us: stop-works, strikes, mass protest, solidarity action. Without it, living standards will continue to be trashed by bosses and politicians alike.

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