Make O'Farrell’s industrial laws unworkable

12,000 turned out to June 15 union protest outside NSW parliament. Photo: Pip Hinman

A bill attacking the rights of NSW public sector workers pushed by the O’Farrell Coalition government are set to pass through the upper house on June 14, with the support of Fred Nile’s Christian Democrats and the Shooters Party.

It can then be put through the Liberal dominated lower house on June 15.

The anti-union bill is a draconian measure. If passed, it will give the state government the power to unilaterally set the wages and conditions of public sector workers.

It means the government could not only freeze or even cut wages but also cut penalty rates, shift allowances, maternity leave payments, redundancy payments and other entitlements without public sector employees having any redress to the NSW Industrial Relations Commission (IRC).

The government’s wages policy will limit pay rises for new agreements to 2.5%, despite inflation running at more than 3%.

The laws mean that if public servants strike for better pay, the strike could be stopped by the Commission. If public servants tried to bargain for better pay, the government could simply refuse to bargain.

No public sector worker is safe. The state government could decide to review all current awards and change them through regulation.

This could also open the floodgates to more attacks on workers' rights outside the state public sector. If the Coalition wins at the next federal election, these kinds of attacks could be generalised across the country.

NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell’s attacks are worse than Howard’s Work Choices. They will place the wages and conditions of 400,000 NSW public sector workers in the hands of the finance minister. No new awards will be able to be made unless the minister says so.

The new laws will give NSW public sector workers the worst industrial rights of any worker in Australia. They will end the independent role of the IRC; cut the pay and conditions of public sector workers in NSW; undermine the ability of public sector unions to represent their members, and cut services to the community.

In response, unions have chosen June 15 to hold a big protest at parliament house, which will be built through stop work actions across NSW by public sector unions.

In early June, a key meeting of public sector unions took place. The meeting heard proposals for a 24-hour strike on June 15. Most union leaders opted for a four-hour stop work action and some will take the proposal back to members for debate.

Unions NSW has launched a petition campaign, with a target of 20,000 signatures by June 15.

The rally follows several snap protests outside parliament over June 2-4. These actions attracted hundreds of workers.

The initiative for these mobilisations came from the NSW Public Service Association (PSA) and the NSW Teachers Federation (NSWTF), with support from the bus drivers’ section of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU), the Fire Brigade Employees Union (FBEU) and the NSW Nurses Federation.

These snap protests took place against a backdrop of one of the most historic filibusters in NSW parliamentary history.

In an effort to delay the passing of the legislation, Greens Upper House MPs David Shoebridge and John Kaye delivered speeches of almost six hours. Labor's industrial relations spokesperson, Sophie Cotsis, spoke for three hours. Debate was finally suspended after 11 hours at 3.19am on June 3.

On June 9, 16 branches of the NSW Nurses Federation (which has 35,000 members), fresh from their campaign for better nurse to patient ratios, voted to take a four-hour stop work action on June 15. This represents 80% of the federation’s NSW branches.

The FBEU also voted to stop work across metropolitan Sydney, the Illawarra and the Hunter Valley on June 15.

The NSWTF Executive has not yet voted to take stop work action, but has decided that delegations of its members will mobilise from schools across Sydney to attend the rally, leaving a skeleton staff behind.

The Health Services Union will also take stop work action for the rally.

The NSW PSA (which represents 45,000 members) has left it to sections and workplaces to vote on strike action. At least one PSA workplace has voted unanimously to take strike action if its request for leave is not granted.

The PSA is also organising buses to transport members to the rally.

The RTBU have responded strongly to the attacks and will mobilise for the rally. It is considering stop work action.

There has been a lot of talk in the media about the so-called deal to exempt police from the changes. Nile pushed the government for the exemption because the police had a wage case before the IRC.

But apparently the police exemption is not a certainty. O'Farrell has even denied any such exemption exists, saying that any wage rises for police above 2.5% will have to be funded out of the Police Officer Death and Disability Scheme.

The Police Association have said 500 of its members will attend the June 15 rally. NSW Police threatened to take strike action over wages in 2008, but they haven’t actually taken such action in about a century.

They should join the campaign rather than allow themselves to become O’Farrell’s shock troops deployed against their NSW public sector colleagues.

The attacks have taken many union leaderships by surprise, but already there is talk among unions about a statewide general strike in August, with regional actions in the lead up across the state.

Progressive unionists and activists across NSW are organising to help ensure the June 15 rally is huge, and that momentum builds for a general strike across NSW.

After all, the state runs on the labour of public sector workers, so withdrawing that labour is the only way to make these laws unworkable and force O’Farrell to back off.

The most effective way to ensure union members and workers across the state are mobilised is to explain the seriousness of these attacks and to show how industrial organisation is the key to defeating these laws.

Cross-union delegate meetings and building strong union-community alliances is essential. This will also allow non-public sector workers to join the campaign, plus students, parents, churches, other concerned citizens and users of public services in NSW.