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Issue #1505      15 June 2011

O’Farrell tries out Tea Party industrial laws

Attack on NSW public sector workers is the model for Abbott’s new “WorkChoices”

The recently elected Liberal O’Farrell NSW government has effectively tried to bushwhack the state’s labour movement by rushing through amendments to the its industrial laws. These amendments aim to slash wages and remove the rights of NSW public sector workers. With these amendments NSW’s industrial laws will be the most extreme ever enacted in Australia.

NSW’s 400,000 public servants, nurses, teachers, police, firefighters, public transport workers and ambulance workers will be the only workers in Australia with no recourse to, or protection of an independent industrial court. Instead, they will be ruled directly by government dictate. Their employer will take upon itself the sole say on the conditions its employees will work under.

The new laws give a single government minister, the Minister of Finance, direct control over wages and conditions. The government retains the pretence of an Industrial Relations Commission, but the Commission must give affect to any policy “that is declared by the regulations to be an aspect of government policy that is required to be given effect to by the Commission”, that is, whatever regulation the government cooks up, the Commission must dish it out to the NSW public sector workforce.

The NSW government can use its new powers to issue a regulation on anything it wants in relation to its public sector workforce - it could regulate for a complete wage freeze, removal of leave, cuts in redundancy provisions, variations in staff to client ratios, removal of rights to take industrial action or to associate in unions, or legitimacy of workers to monitor occupational health and safety conditions in their workplaces.

Certainly, the most immediate effect of the amendments - to restrict wage increases to 2.5 percent per annum, effectively a wage cut, given the rate of increase in costs of living – is to block wage and salary rises already in the pipeline that the Industrial Relations Commission was to rule on in the next few months.

The Public Service Association, with 45,000 members, had a wage case before the Industrial Relations Commission that was expected to result in an increase of 3.5-4 per cent in the next few weeks.

The NSW Nurses Association, with 35,000 members in public hospitals and 1,200 in disability services, was seeking an increase in penalty rates for night staff and expecting to gain a 3.9 percent wage increase for disability services and aged care workers, in line with the 3.9 percent already awarded to public hospital nurses this financial year.

Police are the only public sector workers who are exempted from the 2.5 percent cap – for now – because the Association pressed Christian Democrat MP Fred Nile to get the exemption from the government.

Nevertheless, president of the Police Association, Scott Weber, declared the Association was not convinced it could take the government on its word:

‘’Before the election, Barry O’Farrell said we would retain our right to an independent umpire. But less than two months after the election, he tried to take it away. How can we trust this government again?’’

Greens MLC David Shoebridge, in a marathon six-hour speech aimed at filibustering the government’s attempt to bull-doze the new laws through the NSW Upper House of Parliament last week, has pointed out that the new laws are even more radical than John Howard’s WorkChoices:

“Despite all its flaws, even under WorkChoices unions could approach the Commonwealth Industrial Relations Court to set minimum entitlements without being threatened with a veto by the government. Under O’Farrell’s new laws, all bets are off, and the government of the day will get the power to veto wage rises, and cut back on conditions, by simply issuing a regulation”.

In reality the NSW Liberal-National government’s attack on public sector workers’ rights, is a trial run by the right wing, in a key state, to develop an even more vicious set of anti-worker laws than the Howard government’s detested laws. What O’Farrell is trying on in NSW now is a taste of what an Abbot Liberal government will have in store for all workers in Australia if it is elected.

According to Shoebridge, “It is now clear NSW is just the first stage in the federal Coalition’s plan to relaunch WorkChoices. ... A failure by Tony Abbott to reject the NSW Coalition’s IR plan can only mean one thing – that this is the new IR model for the Federal Coalition.”

The attack on workers’ rights affects everyone in NSW – our health, schools, TAFE, aged care, our communities and all our essential services.

These same sorts of attacks are being carried out and copied around the world, as global capital reasserts its control in the aftermath of the 2008-09 global financial crisis and prepares to withstand future crises. Its aims in doing this are to subjugate labour while pushing the costs of the crisis onto the working class internationally.

The capitalist ruling class, through institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, is implementing its neo-liberal policy: austerity measures in Europe and the UK, suppression of unions and horrific attacks on workers in developing countries, and privatisation of public services and attacks against public sector workers everywhere. Fanatics and potential neo-fascist movements, such as the Tea Party in the USA are being cultivated to advocate and implement these policies.

The action of the O’Farrell government closely mimics that of US governors recently elected with Tea Party endorsement, such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, whose vicious and undemocratic anti-public sector laws have caused widespread workers’ and popular revolt. This is of little surprise given the intimate links between the Australian Liberals and the US Republicans, and the infestation of both political formations with Christian fundamentalists, anti-evolutionists, climate change deniers and neo-liberal idealogues.

Already the revolt against the O’Farrell laws is rapidly emerging.

Your Rights at Work groupings, of the kind that so effectively combated the Howard government’s WorkChoices, are starting to form.

Pickets and demonstrations have been held outside the NSW Parliament House and a major action is being planned for this Wednesday June 15, when the second reading of the Bill will be passed in the Lower House.

A series of regional rallies is also planned by Unions NSW over the next few moths, leading to another major action outside Parliament in August.

Now is the time for the whole labour movement to mobilise to make these laws unworkable in NSW. Only in this way will we stop such laws becoming the model for all Australia.  

Next article – Letter to the ABC Board from Friends of the ABC

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