Union fight can beat O’Farrell back

June 24, 2011
Public sector workers rally outside NSW parliament on June 15, Sydney.

In a show of anger against the attacks on workers rights by NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell, 12,000 public sector workers stopped work and rallied outside NSW parliament on June 15.

The protest was organised in just over a week, and several unions, including the Nurses Federation and the fire fighters took stopwork action on the day.

In spite of constant rain, the rally spread out for more than a block along Macquarie Street and into Martin Place.

The date was chosen to coincide with the sitting of the NSW Legislative Assembly, which passed the industrial relations legislation into law that night.

The new law passed through the Legislative Council the previous day after a lengthy debate, including a historic fillibuster by Greens and Labor MPs.

When challenged by the opposition to respond to the presence of 12,000 workers rallying outside parliament, O’Farrell said, “that the biggest protest we have seen this year was on 26 March” referring to the recent state election, when voters punished the then-ALP government and voted in the Liberal government.

The ALP was rightly thrown out of office for years of developer deals and sell-outs, and the claims by O’Farrell that the new government was implementing Labor’s policy is not a complete lie.

The former ALP government policy included a 2.5% salary cap on public sector wages. Further rises were subject to productivity agreements.

The ALP’s 2007 Public Sector Wages Policy said: “Agencies must fund any increases above 2.5% per annum to wages, or other employee related expenses such as allowances, superannuation etc, through employee related cost saving measures.” http://www.dpc.nsw.gov.au/publications/memos_and_circulars/ministerial_memoranda/2007/m2007-12_nsw_public_sector_wages_policy_2007

Quoting anonymous sources, the May 26 Australian accused the Labor treasurer in 2004, Michael Egan, of floating the idea of legislating “to force the industrial court to observe the government's wages policy when making its determinations”. http://aap.newscentre.com.au/acci/110526/library/education_1/25763445.html

Thanks to Labor’s legacy, O’Farrell can now broaden the attacks on public sector workers to undermine the whole state industrial relations system and concentrate industrial relations powers in the hands of the finance ministry.

Finance minister Greg Pearce will now have the power to review any new and existing awards, even where these have already been determined. He can demand trade-offs in conditions and job cuts in exchange for wage claims above 2.5%.

The June 15 rally heard from a mix of union officials and rank-and-file public sector workers.

The mood of the crowd was angry defiance. Some made calls for a 24-hour, statewide strike.

These sentiments reflected a debate among union leaders that took place in the week before the rally. Some unions were prepared to lead their members out for 24 hours, while others were not committed to industrial action on the day.

The nurses union put the question to its members, who answered with an overwhelming vote for stopwork action on the day.

Other unions, such as the NSW Teachers Federation, would not commit to industrial action, but sent delegations to the rally from schools across Sydney.

Rank-and-file delegates, including a teacher’s aide, a nurse and a firefighter, did not mince words when they said they were not going to accept this new law, telling O’Farrell to “dump this law or we’ll dump you”.

By contrast the message coming from the officials was a call for a four-year-long campaign to oust O’Farrell.

Throwing out O’Farrell and the Coalition at the next election should be one outcome of this campaign, but allowing this battle to become focussed on electing the ALP back into office in four years’ time would be a serious setback.

Illustrative of the worrying signs that this campaign could become subordinate to the ALP’s electoral aspirations, the Greens were prevented from speaking on the rally platform outside parliament, in spite of the leading role they are playing in this campaign.

Protests and delegates meetings are being organised across regional NSW and outer Sydney in the lead up to the next statewide mobilisation on August 22.

In Newcastle, a rally is being organised to coincide with a government Community Cabinet meeting.

These delegate meetings have so far been organised only in marginal seats (see details below) and no cross-union delegates meeting is planned for metropolitan Sydney.

It is also unclear whether August 22 will be called as a 24-hour, statewide strike.

Workers and their unions need to fight with every ally they can to build the major industrial, community and political campaign in the short term that is needed to defeat these laws by making them unworkable.

As such, there need to be motions and debate from the floor about the next steps in this campaign, including a concerted industrial campaign to force O’Farrell back.

All progressive activists (including socialists, Greens, ALP rank-and-file activists and others) will need to push for strong action in August.

There is also an important role for local union and community activist groups to play in ensuring local grassroots leadership and direction.

In this context of the need for left unity, the emergence of “Community Voice”, a united front of the left and progressive community, which was launched on June 18 in the Illawarra, is a welcome sign.

The power of the NSW minister to set award wages and conditions is an attack on industrial relations that goes beyond the attacks by former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett, which adopted harsh anti-worker laws in 1992.

In response, unions across Victoria mounted a huge industrial campaign and 200,000 workers took part in a 24-hour strike and marched on the state parliament.

Kay McVey, then-president of the State Public Service Federation, told Green Left Weekly: “All our members are aware that just one 24-hour general strike will not achieve our objectives. We need a concerted campaign until this offensive legislation is withdrawn or repealed.”

This is exactly the kind of campaign we need in NSW.

[Susan Price is the national trade union convener of the Socialist Alliance.]


Newcastle — Rally at Civic Park at 5pm Monday 27th June 2011 at 6pm
Prior to the Community Cabinet meeting at Newcastle City Hall, King Street Newcastle.
Contact: Garry Kennedy 0438 550 508

Dubbo — Delegates Meeting 12:30pm -1:15pm Monday 27th June
Dubbo RSL Club, Corner Brisbane St and Wingewarra St, Dubbo
Contact: Paul Doughty on 0418 290 945

Orange — Delegates Meeting 5:30pm – 6:30pm, Monday 27 June
Tobruk Room, Orange Ex-Services Club,
231 – 243 Anson St, Orange
Contact: Paul Doughty on 0418 290 945

Bathurst — Delegates Meeting 5:30pm – 6:30pm, Tuesday 28 June
Heritage Room, Bathurst RSL Club, 114
Rankin Street Bathurst
Contact: Paul Doughty on 0418 290 945

Shoalhaven — Rally outside Shoalhaven City Council at 4:30pm Tuesday 28th June
Bridge St, Nowra
Contact: Arthur Rorris 0409 223 029

Sutherland Shire — Delegates Meeting 4:30pm Tuesday 28th June
Sutherland Trade Union Club, Eloura Room,
Contact: Ted Kenny Teachers Federation 9217 2100

Central Coast — Delegates Meeting 6pm Wednesday 29th June
Ourimbah RSL, 6-22 Pacific Highway Ourimbah
Contact Adam Kerslake
0425 231 820

Penrith — Delegates Meeting 12:30pm-1:30pm Wednesday 29th June
Venue – TBC
Contact: Mary Yaager 0408 931 899

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.