NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell has public sector unions in his sights.  Last year Barry O’Farrell announced changes to force the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) to enforce a 2.5 per cent cap on pay rises.

But despite two large public sector wide union rallies last year, most unions have failed to fight the cap in their pay bargaining. Even the Teachers Federation recently accepted a 2.5 per cent pay deal for TAFE teachers and postponed strike action to fight for a better deal for school teachers.

Now O’Farrell is launching new attacks. In April the government’s public sector review will release its final report. An interim report recommended further privatisations, cuts and, “the consolidation of multiple awards and removing some workforce management policies, such as staff ratios, from awards” as the Financial Review put it. Solidarity spoke to the secretary of the firefighters union, Jim Casey, about the new threats.

The O’Farrell government looks to be gearing up for second wave of attacks on public sector workers, what does this mean for firefighters and other public sector workers?

There are three components to the legislation currently before parliament. There’s the increase in fines, there’s the widening of the “managing excess employees” policy, and the competitive unionism legislation.

For firefighters the first two are the worry. Increasing fines for disregarding Orders of the IRC is just trying to cost unions out of taking industrial action. But the “managing excess employees” policy is particularly nasty for us. There are dozens of firefighters across NSW who are not fit for full duties who are employed in “light duty” positions. Under this new legislation if their positions is not substantive they’re sacked. It’s a sea change in the way FRNSW has traditionally dealt with injured or unwell firefighters.

In addition they have announced huge increases to fines for industrial action in defiance of IRC—why are they doing this?

As it currently stands fines for disregarding Orders of the IRC run at $10,000 a day. The new legislation increases that to $220,000 per day (for a second offence).

When the IRC hands down Orders instructing a union to cease industrial action it is something that you do not disregard lightly. In fact, some unions never do so. Others, the FBEU among them, are prepared to ignore the IRC if the issue is pressing enough.

For example, last year a small dispute over light duties positions escalated to a point where our modest overtime bans were met with station closures across Sydney by the Department. The IRC issued Orders that we lift those bans. We refused, the dispute escalated further (with attempts made by the employer to respond fire trucks short-crewed), before we won. It was a bitter little dispute with a great outcome, and it required that we disregard Orders to get a resolution.

That exercise would have cost us over half a million in fines under the new legislation. We are a financially healthy union, but sustaining fines in that magnitude would exhaust our cash reserves very quickly. Simply not paying would just end with our assets seized and building sold.

The public sector union campaign against O’Farrell started strongly, with 35,000 rallying last September. But since then unions have either accepted 2.5 per cent pay rises (TAFE teachers, PSA) or trade-offs (RBTU) or postponed further industrial action. What does this mean for the fight against O’Farrell?

O’Farrell was smart enough to allow unions to sign on for 2.5 per cent agreements easily, whilst also making it clear that there would be no backpay if workers chose not to sign. Under those conditions it was unsurprising that unions have been taking the money.

What is clear though is that O’Farrell isn’t sitting on his hands. The wages policy was just the beginning. The new legislation is the second wave, and clearly there’s more to come.

Which means that there will not be an electoral solution here. There’ll be nothing left of the public service by the time government changes, so we need to be taking the fight back to the government right now.

What are the prospects for combined unions action against outcome of Commission of Audit report? When do you expect the government will try to push through changes?

This will depend on what exactly they decide to go with. As an example— there is a reference to staffing ratios in hospital wards and safe and effective minimum crewing on fire engines as two restrictive practices that should be approached as a financial, rather than industrial, question. The FBEU and the Nurses will be able to make common ground on this issue.

I don’t have a crystal ball so I can’t be sure where they will cut next, and when. But I am 100 per cent sure that there are more attacks coming, and that unionised workers in NSW will fight back. How successful that struggle will be is an open question.

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