At least 30,000 New South Wales public sector workers, including prison officers, park rangers, school support staff, ServiceNSW workers and civilian police employees, took 24-hour strike action and rallied in Bathurst, Grafton, Wagga Wagga, Newcastle, Broken Hill, Tamworth and other towns across the state on June 8.
In Sydney, workers met in Hyde Park and marched to parliament, chanting “Scrap the cap!”, “What do we want? A pay rise! When do we want it? Now!” and “Union! Power!” They carried placards including “Bushfires, floods, pandemic. Pay cut!” and “Crime doesn't pay. Neither does this government!”
The Public Service Association (PSA) is pushing for fair pay rises and the permanent abolition of the 2.5% wage cap, legislated in 2011 by the NSW government on public employees.
Unions NSW secretary Mark Morey called on the government to end its pay cap on public servants, which is due to rise to 3% next financial year, and 3.5% the following. PSA Senior Vice-President Juliette Sizer told the rally that the pay cap is “disgraceful and unjust”.
“Now is the time for the government to support us. We need a pay rise to start at 5.2%,” which is just above the current inflation rate of 5.1%.
PSA General Secretary Stewart Little said: “This offer is pure politics — moving half a per cent and playing silly games with one-off bonuses for certain workers.”
“Enough is enough! Our time is now … Whatever the crisis, the public sector is there. Flood, fire, pandemic, the frontline workers hold the line.
“If the premier is going to insist that workers deserve a pay cut he’s going to meet fierce resistance.”
The government decided to give frontline health staff a $3000 bonus for their work during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Little said noone is more deserving of a bonus than health care workers, but that more public servants should be getting it, including PSA members in the Ministry of Health, epidemiologists, contact tracers, teachers and other emergency service workers.
Labor opposition spokesperson on industrial relations Sophie Cotsis said the government is pitting workers against each other.
Unions NSW said the government must invest in public services by hiring more workers and ending the overwork and understaffing. It is calling for wages to keep up with the cost of living, arguing that this would attract more workers to the essential work sector and lift the quality of public services.
“It is illogical that all workers in essential services are not offered full-time permanent roles,” the union confederation said. It also wants an end to privatisation and to ensure all government contracts pay the same wages for the same work to stop “the race to the bottom” where businesses compete on lower wages with insecure work.
One PSA member who works for the workers’ insurance agency iCare told Green Left that pay rises should at least keep up with inflation and frontline workers deserve extra for their work during the recent crises.
“The next step [to pressure the government] would be to have a combined strike and rally by all unions and staff of the whole public sector,” they said. “It would send a louder message of our determination and help build solidarity among all public sector workers.”
If the government does not come to the table “we’ll be back for sure”, they said. “We need a sustained campaign, not just a one-day strike, to show them that we’re serious.”
The strike by public servants follows strikes over the past six months by teachers, nurses, ambulance drivers and public transport workers all calling for real pay rises and improved conditions.
[Jim McIlroy is a retired public servant and life-long unionist.]