WA battle over public services


By Anthony Benbow

PERTH — The latest public sector cuts announced by the Court Liberal government are the most direct attacks so far on working people, and on our right to organise and fight for better work conditions. Behind the somewhat overused statements about "restructuring", "efficiency" and "competitive tendering" is the real aim of the government's action — having WA's public utilities and services run for the profits of a few, rather than to benefit the whole community.

Bus and rail services, the Water Authority, health care, fire brigade, building maintenance — all are the target of restructuring and contracting out of services.

In Westrail, the state's railway system, a program called "Right Track" is being implemented by management. No workers' or union representatives have been consulted; they have been told they will be informed "when the decision is made". Up to 1000 jobs could be lost from Westrail's work force of 3300.

The Building Management Authority (BMA), which maintains government buildings, faces further cutbacks, and the government has stated its desire to see it abolished entirely.

TransPerth, the public transport provider, has had its river ferry services sold off to Perth Water Transport, and the buses are next on the list, under their new title of MetroBus.

The WA Water Authority (WAWA) is losing major work such as sewerage installation and vehicle maintenance to the private sector. More than 600 jobs in these areas are at risk.

Hospital services defined as "non-core" (catering, cleaning, orderly staff) are to be contracted out. Even the Fire Brigade is facing the loss of fire tender maintenance to outside contractors.

Potential job losses will be in the thousands — and there is no way the private sector would provide ongoing work for those suffering from "redeployment".

These latest proposals by the Court government are the continuation of privatisations and "restructuring" that have been going on for years — under ALP governments as well as the Liberals.

ALP governments of the WA Inc years laid the ground for many of the cuts taking place today. Current opposition leader Jim McGinty oversaw many of the cutbacks to BMA staff and services, as part of his portfolio in Carmen Lawrence's government. (BMA workers obviously have good memories, judging by the angry response to Labor MLC Alannah MacTiernan when she spoke to a meeting of workers there recently.)

In 1993 the abattoir at Robb Jetty was closed along with the Midland Railway workshops. State Print was privatised, as were some other areas. However, this latest round of attacks is aimed not at "more efficiency", but at breaking the power of the WA union movement.

Many public utilities have been implementing "quality assurance" and shedding staff throughout the 1980s. They are already very efficient by normal "commercial" standards, but that has not been enough to guarantee them work.

The WAWA is one such example. It recently submitted a tender for a Homeswest sewerage development. WAWA won the tender on the basis of "market standards", but the government stepped in and ordered the tender to be done again, and prevented the WAWA from reapplying. A similar thing happened with the authority's vehicle maintenance division.

TransPerth is also suffering from this: outer suburban bus routes are being sold to private operators. (This was how Perth's bus system ran in the 1950s and '60s, but most of the small operators ran into financial difficulties and had to be bought out by TransPerth!)

In all these cases, the government intervened to give a contract to a more expensive private contractor, (employing non-unionised workers). This is rather illogical "efficiency".

The Court government is also making legislative changes to undermine workers' conditions and democratic rights.

Workers affected by restructuring in one area are not sacked but "redeployed" elsewhere in the public service. However, the recently introduced "Public Sector Management Act" forces workers to accept new positions that have much worse pay and conditions. If a "redeployed" worker refuses to accept a position offered because the pay or conditions are worse, they are sacked.

Legislation due to be voted on in September is even harsher. The industrial relations amendments abolish payroll deductions of union dues, restrict right of entry to work sites for union officials and provide for cancellation of state-based awards in some circumstances.

This legislation also gives chief executive officers of public services the right to directly negotiate workplace agreements with staff. Many CEOs are not promoted to their positions through the public service, but are appointed directly by the government. Restructuring and job cuts are often central requirements of their contracts, as they move from department to department. The former CEO of the BMA is now head of the fire brigades.

These legislative changes are aimed at running government departments more like private businesses. Experience already shows this will result in job losses and poorer services, accessible to fewer people.

This is why these changes are aimed directly at breaking the union movement: an organised union campaign would be a huge roadblock to privatisation.

State sector unions and the WA TLC are currently coordinating a campaign of industrial action. Mass meetings and a lunchtime rally in the city are planned for April 12, followed by ongoing industrial actions involving both public and private sector workers as necessary.

State sector organiser for the AEEFEU (the WA Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union) Vince George commented: "Some of these attacks can be countered by moving to federal awards and by fighting bad legislation in the courts, but this is only a temporary answer. We can't trust the federal system. The ALP government refuses to come out against privatisation, and actively encourages it in some areas, like federal airports, Qantas and Telecom."

"Workers have to fight privatisation where we can best — on the job. Our attitude should be to delay, divert and derail this process, and not be tricked into concessions that will weaken our collective strengths. We shouldn't be putting our faith into political parties unless that party is prepared to state that it opposes privatisation, and explain how it will fight against it in office. Otherwise we leave ourselves open to future sell-outs."

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