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Issue #1506      22 June 2011

Fight to save the public sector

Public sector workers across Australia are fighting to defend vital services, jobs, trade union rights, wages and working conditions. In the three Coalition governed states workers and their unions are getting a taste of what to expect from a federal Coalition government. Two states are trialling an approach that harks back to the days when employers dictated wages and working conditions. These governments have used legislation to ride roughshod over provisions negotiated in enterprise agreements and awards.


Photo: Anna Pha

The attacks also take more familiar forms such as job cuts, imposition of individual contracts and contracting out of jobs to the voluntary and low paid not-for-profit sector.

Job Cuts = Service Cuts

The Rann Labor government in South Australia announced in its budget last September that it was cutting 4,000 public sector jobs over the next four years. It also announced that it was reconsidering its “no involuntary redundancy” undertakings given during March 2010 state election campaign.

Ignoring recently negotiated agreements with the Public Service Association (PSA), it used legislation to abolish the recreation leave loading for non-shift workers in the public sector from July 2012. It also cut long service leave entitlements from 15 days to nine days per annum for workers with 15 or more years of service. These cuts to come into effect on July 1.

Since the budget, the PSA has sustained an intensive campaign, including numerous marches and rallies, workplace union meetings, lobbying of political parties and MPs, a High Court challenge which is still underway, regular media exposure and advertising, and the creation of a new interactive, campaign website, doesntaddup.com.au

The union’s campaign has had its first win. The government has agreed to restore the recreation leave loading and honour its commitment to job security for the remainder of the life of this parliament (March 2014).

However, it is continuing with its budget cuts to an already overstretched and under funded public sector. Around 700 jobs have already been axed using such means as not filling vacancies.

The campaign website keeps a tally of jobs lost and points to the serious impact of years of budget cutting on workers in the public sector and on vital services, including social justice and welfare programs, they provide to the public.

The ultimate victims of these cuts include children, families, Indigenous Australians, the sick, the elderly, students, those in need of care or support services and prisoners. The government has also cut funding to a number of community services compounding the impact of its public sector cuts.

“NO WorkChoices in WA”

In Western Australia, the Barnett Coalition government is waging a two-pronged attack on the public sector and its workforce. The first is centred around massive budget cutting and contracting out of public sector jobs to the voluntary and low wage not-for-profit sector. The government has dishonestly given its public sector-gutting program the title, “Putting the Public First”. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As the Civil Service Union (CSU) points out, when service provision is contracted out, “Competition replaces cooperation. Contract competition drives down wage levels and increases job insecurity, deskilling and casualisation. Workers in the sector, predominantly women, are already low paid.” The CSU also warns that service quality could be seriously undermined and inequality and social disadvantage reinforced.”

The second prong of the WA government offensive is legislation modelled on the Howard government’s WorkChoices. It will make it more difficult for trade unions to protect the jobs and services which are being cut. Its centrepiece is the reintroduction of individual, non-union employment contracts, called individual workplace agreements (IWAs). The WA version of WorkChoices would cover around a third of the state’s workforce which is still on state-based awards and agreements (public sector and small, unincorporated organisations).

It is based on a government-commissioned review which was kept under wraps for 14 months. Its author, Stephen Amendola, has a close association with the Howard government’s WorkChoices legislation. The review is a blue print for the government to gut the powers and role of the Industrial Relations Commission, force workers onto IWAs, deny union representatives the right of entry, wipe any protection against unfair dismissal, and make it almost impossible to engage in collective bargaining. In other words, an employer’s dream and worker’s nightmare.

Unions WA are not waiting for the Barnett Coalition government to release the final details of its new workplace laws. Their campaign is up and running under the slogan “NO WorkChoices in WA”. Details can be found on its website noworkchoicesinwa.com.au where there is a petition to sign and letter to send to the premier.

Worse than WorkChoices

One of the largest protest actions for many years was held in Sydney on June 15. The lunchtime rally sent a strong message to the O’Farrell Coalition government that the union movement would fight its new industrial relations laws. The recently passed Industrial Relations (Public Sector Conditions of Employment) Bill gives the government the right to dictate through regulatory means wages and working conditions of public sector employees. (See Guardian June 1, 8 & 15 for more details.)

Private sector unions joined in solidarity with their public sector colleagues to swell the ranks to more than 12,000. There was a large police presence, but in an unusual twist they were part of the protest, carrying large placards with the slogans: “Protect Our Police” and “Cops Deserve Better”. Attempts by the government to split the police off from the rest of the pubic sector workforce failed.

As well as police, the legislation affects teachers, ambos, nurses and other health care workers, community workers, librarians, parliamentary staff (who joined the protest), firefighters, and many others who provide vital services to the community.

The government’s first regulation under the new law restricts annual wage increases of public sector employees to 2.5 percent – amounting to a real wage reduction. Any increase above the 2.5 percent can only be granted if they can achieve corresponding “employee related savings” (either job cuts, larger classes, poorer conditions, etc) in advance of the pay increase.

The wage rise ceiling is only the beginning. Staffing levels, long service leave provisions, annual leave loading, overtime payments, working hours, annual leave – everything is up for grabs.

As Greens MP David Shoebridge said, “These laws, which give direct control over wages and conditions to a single government minister, while retaining the presence of an Industrial Relations Commission, are even more radical than John Howard’s WorkChoices.”

For more details on the campaign and to sign the petition, visit psa.labor.net.au.

Blackmail bargaining

In Victoria, the Baillieu Coalition government has capped funding for wage rises to 2.5 percent but has not gone the next step of legislating for it as its counterparts did in NSW. Instead, it leaves public sector employees with the choice of accepting a real wage cut or job and service cuts. It also rules out addressing chronic understaffing and a growing demand for services in line with population increase and other factors.

Health, education, social welfare, community and other services will be forced to cut services and working conditions – even without breaching the 2.5 percent cap. Never mind equal pay!

In Queensland, public services are threatened by the Bligh Labor government’s privatisation program and budgetary cuts. There are plans to slash 6,000 public sector jobs. Alec Scott, secretary of the Queensland Public Sector Union has resigned his membership of the ALP over the government’s attack on the public sector.

ACTU secretary Jeff Lawrwnce addressing the Sydney rally described the campaign against the new NSW law as a national one. And that is what is needed, not just to defend the public sector – jobs, services and wages and working conditions in NSW – but Australia wide.  

Next article – Editorial – Labor’s “malaise”

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