By Melanie Sjoberg
ADELAIDE — Premier John Olsen and the state Liberal government are squirming with embarrassment over their handling of state public sector workers' wages and conditions in recent weeks.
Prior to the end of the 1998 school year, education workers, members of the Australian Education Union (AEU), voted by more than a two-thirds majority to strike indefinitely from the beginning of the 1999 school year if the government failed to employ extra staff.
Then, on January 13, state public service employees delivered a resounding 68% rejection of the government's paltry 5% wages offer.
Discussions had been taking place through most of 1998 between the government and PSA over the enterprise bargain offer of a 5% wage rise and some protection against forced redundancy. The PSA lodged a claim for a 14% pay rise, no forced redundancies and improvements to leave conditions.
Negotiations stalled in November, at which point the PSA launched an industrial campaign to force the government's hand. The state government attempted to override union negotiations by putting the offer to a ballot of all employees.
This was a cynical manoeuvre: the ballots were to be returned over the Christmas-New Year period, when many offices were closed and employees on leave. Most agencies did not even conduct the information sessions, required under legislation, to explain the details of the offer.
The PSA conducted a vigorous "Vote No" campaign, in conjunction with members' meetings and industrial action in several agencies.
The January 13 ballot result vindicated the PSA position. PSA general secretary Jan McMahon warned, "It's time for the government to renegotiate or face continued industrial action and growing ill feeling within the public sector".
The AEU also spent half of 1998 attempting to negotiate a new enterprise agreement with the government. The AEU claim included a wage increase of 14% over two years, a range of improvements to conditions and extending the additional staff for schools won during the 1996 enterprise agreement.
The government announced that it had budgeted for the extra school staff in the May budget. Government officials, however, failed to release the funds and tied them to the next round of wage discussions.
The government offered a significant 13% wage increase over three years, in what appeared to be an effort to win over education workers. Many of the AEU's staffing and improved condition claims were ignored.
Meetings of AEU members rejected the wage offer in favour of improvements to staffing levels to produce smaller class sizes. The AEU proposed that the offer be modified to a 10% pay increase over two years, with the remaining funds put into extra staff.
This was not accepted by government, and negotiations have stalled since the end of the school year.
On January 15, the government offered a wage increase of 10% over three years, with the remaining 3% to pay for extra staff. It has insisted that the AEU respond before the start of the school year, which means that the union will be unable to consult its members.
At this point, it appears that public schools will open on January 27 only if the government offers concessions to the AEU on the staffing issue.
The government has signalled it will take a more aggressive tack with its January 15 announcement of the appointment of a new education chief executive officer.
The new appointee, Geoff Spring, has been imported from Victoria, where he presided over the sacking of more than 8000 education workers and the closure of hundreds of schools. He was instrumental in introducing the "local school management model", which, under the guise of autonomy, forces schools to operate to tight budget constraints at the local level. This model has eroded central staff allocation and equity between schools.
The government continues to bleat about the historic State Bank debt black-hole and has warned that jobs will be cut to pay for any increase the unions might win, especially in the aftermath of the rejection of the sale of the public electricity utility ETSA. It seems that the public sector and education are being targeted for major attacks.