NSW public sector unions including public servants, firefighters and train drivers are planning a united day of action on July 30 against the state government’s 2.5 per cent pay rise limit.

The day of action was announced after the nurses’ union accepted a pay deal in exchange for a raft of “trade offs” that strip back work conditions.

The nurses’ is the latest in a string of public sector disputes where unions are battling state Labor governments’ below-inflation pay caps. Inflation was running at 4.2 per cent last quarter. Yet the NSW state government is offering pay rises of only 2.5 per cent unless workers accept trade-offs.

The deal will see nurses receive 3.9 per cent pay increases for two years—still less than inflation. But in exchange the government extracted cuts to conditions including capping the number of days off workers can accumulate and lower pay when filling a higher position.

Many nurses were angry about the trade-offs. According to Jenny Haines, an activist in the union:

“This set of offsets is reprehensible in the current circumstances where the Association had a lot of bargaining power. Canterbury and Concord, the inner city community nurses, Tweed Heads, Moruya Branches voted against. I heard that the vote on the North Coast was 40 per cent against and probably more or less the same on the South Coast. Organisers were instructed to persuade members to vote in favour of the package.”

This is a much higher no vote than the union’s leadership claimed. They refused to put up any fight—telling members their only option other than accepting the deal was to ask for an industrial relations commission decision, which would have taken months and possibly delivered a worse outcome. There was no attempt to organise any industrial action.

The deal reduces the chance of a public sector wide campaign by unions to break the government’s pay limit and demand money for public services. Teachers and train drivers are still to negotiate pay deals this year. Ninety-five per cent of train drivers voted for industrial action in their recent ballot, and the union has threatened strikes disrupting World Youth Day. The public servants’ union and firefighters’ union claims are currently before the industrial relations commission.

Sector wide trade-offs

The state government is looking to use the nurses’ agreement to press its case for trade-offs across the public sector.

This is designed to isolate remaining unions like the teachers and pressure them to accept a similar deal. The state government used the same tactic against teachers during pay bargaining back in 2000 after nurses and public servants accepted a shoddy deal.

NSW Teachers Federation members need to prepare for a serious fight to secure their claim of 5 per cent a year with no trade-offs, plus an extra 1 per cent in superannuation. Several recent victories by public sector unions across the country show how this can be achieved.

Victorian teachers took three state-wide strikes and five weeks of rolling stoppages. Nurses in the state went ahead with nine days of work bans, despite the action being declared illegal by the industrial relations commission. Strike action was overwhelmingly popular—72 per cent of parents supported the teachers’ strikes according to a poll by Essential Media.

The teachers finalised a deal in June that saw some gain pay increases of 10 and 15 per cent in the first year without trade-offs, although the union agreed to end the dispute before all workers could win the pay rises. Late last year nurses in Victoria gained pay rises of between 3.8 and 6 per cent. In both cases Victorian Labor’s 3.25 per cent pay limit was broken.

Labor maintains a stranglehold on government at state level, where it claims to support health, education and public services.

Yet it has continued the economic rationalist agenda, putting the interests of business before working people. Business is set to receive $5 billion of tax cuts at a state level over the next four years, according the Financial Review.

The NSW Iemma government is facing crises in every direction, with its privatisation proposal on the rocks. Combined with the campaign against privatisation, state public sector workers have the chance to strike a blow against the state government’s addiction to economic rationalism.

By James Supple

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