TENS OF thousands of teachers, nurses, firefighters and public servants are expected to rally on September 8 to launch the campaign against NSW Liberal Premier Barry O’Farrell’s attempt to impose a 2.5 per cent cap on public sector wage increases. With inflation running closer to 3.6 per cent, O’Farrell is out to cut real wages.
O’Farrell has passed laws that prohibit the Industrial Relations Commission from allowing increases over 2.5 per cent unless they are directly funded by cuts to things such as penalty rates, overtime and carer’s leave.
He claims that workers must sacrifice for a budget “black hole” but he’s lying (see left column).
However, a question mark hangs over the willingness of either the public sector unions or Unions NSW to wage an industrial campaign to break the pay cut.
The PSA, which represents over 80,000 public servants, has accepted the 2.5 per cent pay rise while saying it will be challenged in court. PSA secretary, John Cahill, told The Daily Telegraph, “we will take it all the way to the High Court if we have to.”
But O’Farrell will be beaten by an industrial campaign or he won’t be beaten at all. There is an old saying that you can’t win in the courts what you can’t win on the ground.
So far, the campaign by Unions NSW and many union officials falls short of what we need. Instead of calling large combined union delegates’ meetings to build for the September rally as they did at the start of the Your Rights at Work campaign against Howard’s WorkChoices, all they have done is call local rallies.
They are proposing to set up suburban community campaign groups but these seem designed to be part of a community campaign focused on voting out the Liberals in four years’ time.
By that time wages will be a long way behind. In any case, a strategy of relying on a future Labor government ignores the fact that the previous Labor government was also for a 2.5 per cent wage cap.
Thousands will lose their jobs between now and the next election if O’Farrell gets his way. Conditions lost in that time will be hard to claw back.
The Teachers Federation, one of the larger and better organised public sector unions, faces bargaining on a new pay deal at the end of this year and needs to prepare now to take O’Farrell head on and break the pay cap.
Unfortunately, the concern among some officials about the threat of fines for taking “unlawful” strike action is a huge barrier to building the industrial fight. The PSA has authorised strike action for public servants to get to the rally. While it is expected that the Teachers Federation will call a strike for the day, fear of fines has made them reluctant to declare strike action from the outset.
But the risk of fines is minimal. Unions have defied the threat of fines before. NSW TAFE teachers struck in defiance of the Industrial Relations Commission in late 2009 to fight against the threat of longer work hours.
No unions were fined when thousands of unionists went on strike and blockaded the Parliament House in 2001 to stop the then Labor government attacking workers compensation. Nor were any unions fined for the strike action against the privatisation of electricity in 2007.
To beat O’Farrell, the unions are going to have to defy the laws and risk the fines. We need a mass delegates meeting to follow up the rally, to plan more united stop work action and make a clear call to back the teachers.
James Supple and Ian Rintoul