Railway workers have overwhelmingly rejected a NSW government effort to use the pandemic as an opportunity to attack public sector wages. Attempting to prevent industrial action, the bosses of Sydney Trains and NSW Trainlink called for a vote to extend the existing workplace agreement by six months with a pitiful 0.3 percent pay rise. Railway workers rejected proposal in a landslide—87 percent voting against it in Sydney Trains and 89 percent voting against it in NSW Trainlink.
The attempt to cut real wages is part of the wider austerity agenda of the Liberal government. Public sector workers have typically had higher wages and are far more unionised than comparable private sector workplaces.
In 2011, the Liberals tried to restrain public sector wage growth to no more than 2.5 percent per year. Last year, as the pandemic broke out, the government used the opportunity to freeze the wages of 410,000 public sector workers—a wage cut once inflation is factored in. On top of this, Treasurer Dominic Perrotet has announced that the government will offer wage increases of no more than 1.5 percent for the next three years.
While austerity for the working class has kept the state functioning throughout the pandemic, there is largess for the wealthy. At the same time as the pay freeze was announced, $2.4 billion was handed out to businesses in payroll tax cuts. Senior public service executives have also received massive increases to their already substantial salaries. For example, Police Commissioner Mick Fuller received a $90,000 pay rise after the pay freeze was announced.
Railway workers rejecting the government’s proposal is an important step in fighting the Liberal’s attacks on public sector wages. The rail sector is the first to start negotiations for a new enterprise agreement since the pandemic hit. If railways workers can smash the pay freeze, it will provide an example for nurses, teachers and firefighters.
The scale of the no vote against the bosses proposed agreement shows that railway workers are keen to fight. But it will take a determined campaign of industrial action to defeat the Liberal government’s anti-worker agenda.
The writer is a member of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union