Twelve thousand unionists rallied against the NSW Liberals’ attack on public sector workers on June 15.
Nurses and health workers from 40 hospitals, firefighters and many other government workers all took stop work action to attend, joined by teachers, TAFE workers and delegations from other unions.

Just two months after taking office, Barry O’Farrell and the NSW Liberals have shown their real face. The Liberals hid their agenda during the election campaign behind vague promises of “change”. Now they have launched a savage attack on workers, something they never mentioned before the election.

O’Farrell wants to impose a 2.5 per cent limit on public sector pay rises. This is effectively a pay cut, with inflation currently at 3.33 per cent. The previous NSW Labor government tried to do the same thing. But strike action taken by a number of unions forced the government to grant higher wage rises. In 2008 train drivers won 4 per cent with no trade-offs after threatening to strike during World Youth Day, and school teachers won 4 per cent with limited trade-offs in early 2009.

The Liberals’ legislation would force the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) to simply enforce government decisions on wages and conditions. Until now it has had the power to make up its own mind on disputes between unions and the government.

This would allow the government, with a sweep of a pen, to cut any condition it sees fit, from annual leave entitlements to holiday pay, even over-riding conditions contained in awards.

The IRC is no friend of the unions, often siding with the government, and has always been used to contain strike action. But the new law could see the government refuse to bargain and simply force the IRC to ban strike action in support of wage claims, effectively stripping the right to collectively bargain.

The legislation has already passed through parliament with the support of the Shooters and Christian Democrat parties in the upper house.

We can’t afford to wait four years until the next election to get rid of this. And after Labor’s hiding at the state election, it may well be another two elections before it can regain power. Nor can NSW Labor be trusted after its record in office of privatisation, public sector pay cuts and corruption.

Mass strike action
A campaign of ongoing mass strike action could force the Liberals to back down, and ensure they never use the laws. For any government, whether it can pass legislation through parliament is not the only consideration.

Strikes across the public service can make it impossible for the government to function, by shutting down the operation of government departments, hospitals and schools.
Such action need not put the public off-side. If unions explain how the Liberals’ plans would wreck our services, the public can be won over.

Unions NSW will hold another day of action on August 23. A number of unions are expected to stop work to attend in large numbers, but the extent of this remains unclear. We cannot rely on the leaders of Unions NSW to organise the kind of fightback needed. During the Your Rights at Work campaign, they initially resisted the call for mass demonstrations against WorkChoices.

Then Unions NSW Secretary John Robertson argued that strikes and mass protests would alienate public support. It was only after the left unions in Victoria organised successful mass protest and strike action at the beginning of the campaign that they were forced to call mass protests in NSW. It was the mass union protests that won the argument against WorkChoices and sealed John Howard’s fate.

Unions NSW wound down the campaign against power privatisation against then Labor Premier Morris Iemma and Treasurer Michael Costa, refusing to call the kind of serious strike action across the whole union movement that could have stopped privatisation in its tracks. Instead it has put its hopes in an electoral strategy of organising “community campaigns” to talk to voters about issues like privatisation and better services, in the hope of getting Labor elected and influencing MPs.

Pressure from rank-and-file union members will be necessary to make sure the day of action in August involves serious strike action and larger numbers of workers than June 15—which was organised at just a few weeks’ notice.

The petition produced by union activists calling on Unions NSW to organise a 24-hour strike in August, and public sector wide delegates meetings to prepare for it, is a great first step. And this needs to be just the start of an ongoing campaign of strike action. United, we can force back the Liberals’ anti-union attacks.

By James Supple

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