A half-day strike by NSW public servants on October 8 featured a mass meeting of workers at Sydney Town Hall. A vibrant crowd of about 2500 filled the lower deck of the Town Hall. A further 1000 people outside were able to observe the events taking place inside via a large video screen.
The strike was called by the NSW Public Service Association (PSA) in response to an escalation of the NSW Coalition government’s attacks on the state’s public sector. More than 40 regional venues across NSW also hosted meetings that were packed to capacity and included live video links to the Sydney meeting.
The meeting featured talks by rank-and-file workers and PSA leaders about the negative impact of O’Farrell’s program of cutbacks. A resolution for an ongoing campaign of action was unanimously endorsed at all the venues.
Throughout this year, the PSA has spent a lot of time reinforcing to members the dangers the Barry O’Farrell government poses to workers’ interests and this has helped galvanise support for a campaign of action.
Since coming to power 18 months ago, the O’Farrell government has introduced forced redundancies in the public sector for the first time, announced 15,000 job cuts and made savage cuts of billions of dollars to the NSW workers compensation scheme, the education budget and the health budget.
In the week before the stop work action, the government gained a court order that said the action could not take place. It is the first time in many years that the NSW PSA, an industrially conservative union, has defied the courts and taken illegal mass action.
This historic event can at least partly be put down to the fact that the ballot for the PSA election was due to open on October 11, three days after the stop work action. For some time, the current PSA leadership has been vulnerable to ongoing criticism from members for their consistent failure to organise an industrial campaign to fight back against years of cutbacks from successive Labor and Coalition governments.
As such, the stop work action can be measured as a success for rank-and-file workers pressuring the leadership to take decisive action.
There were shortcomings with the industrial action, which was organised at short notice without engaging with the membership. Nevertheless, it was a step forward in the leadership’s hitherto lacklustre approach to resisting attacks from the employer.
A left-wing rank-and-file group known as the Progressive PSA (PPSA) is challenging the officials in the PSA election. At Sydney Town Hall and at the main regional venues PPSA activists distributed 5000 leaflets supporting the stop work action and encouraging members to vote for the Progressive PSA in the election.
The PPSA enjoys widespread support among the membership and has steadily gained in size and strength over the past decade. It stands a strong chance of winning the election. The result for the election will be known on October 31.
[Lindsay Hawkins is an activist with the Progressive PSA.]