Public sector workers battling in NSW

June 8, 2008

Key NSW public sector workers — firefighters, teachers and nurses — are to negotiate new agreements this year and are fighting a tough campaign for fair wages as they face attacks from an anti-worker state Labor government.

Both the NSW Nurses' Association (NSWNA) and the NSW Teachers Federation (NSWTF) are campaigning for wage increases of 5% per year, for four years for nurses and three years for teachers.

Yet with inflation running at 4.2%, the NSW government has been attempting to cap public sector wage rises at 2.5%.

On May 27, NSW Fire Brigade Employees Union state secretary Simon Flynn wrote on the union's website: "It is only now that nurses, public servants and hospital staff are all fast approaching the Government inspired crisis in public sector wages that the entire public sector Trade Union movement is moving into direct conflict with a Government on the nose."

The agreement for the NSWNA expires at the end of June. The union has received only a verbal offer of 3.9% for just one year. Union branches will be meeting this week to discuss the offer and as yet do not know what the trade-offs for the rise — which is above the 2.5% cap — will be.

On May 16 the FBEU proposed to the NSW Fire Brigades' Commissioner a three-year award with an increase of 2.5% in the first year and 5% in the subsequent year. It has already managed to negotiate an interim 2.5% increase and an agreement seemed close. However, within a week NSW Fire Brigades announced that, even if the deal went ahead, they would be insisting on arbitration, which means that they want to slash conditions and entitlements in the award.

The NSWTF award does not expire until December 31, however teachers in NSW face a double battle this year: they are already fighting to keep a centralised staffing system in place.

The state budget handed down on June 3 was cold comfort to public sector workers, too.

Flynn wrote on the FBEU website on June 3 that although the NSW Fire Brigades' budget has been increased by 6%, most of this will be spent on equipment. The Rural Fire Service has had its budget increased by only 1.5% even though its wage costs have increased by 8.7%!

In a June 3 statement, NSWTF president Maree O'Halloran said "the Treasurer continues his foolish proposition that 2.5% per annum will be an acceptable wage increase for State Government employees including teachers. According to the Treasurer, teachers and other government employees are expected to contribute to the fight against inflation with effective wage cuts, a sacrifice not expected of corporate Australia or other employees. Teachers reject the proposition outright and will be campaigning for significant salary increases of no less than 5% per annum for every teacher as well as superannuation increases."

The Bankwest Key Worker Housing Affordability Report, released on June 2, shows these workers cannot afford housing in 93% of local government areas in Sydney. Sydney has six of the country's top 10 most unaffordable areas.

Alarmingly, areas previously considered more affordable are, according to the report, now beyond the reach of middle-income employees. Such areas include Blacktown, Liverpool, the Blue Mountains and Sutherland.

Public sector unions have not given up the fight. The FBEU has a battle plan to continue their campaign for just wages in what Flynn said "looks almost certainly like one of the biggest scraps our Union has been involved in for decades".

Likewise, the NSWTF recently struck for 24 hours on May 22 in defence of the staffing system and is plan more rolling strikes.

The state government has a fight on its hands.

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