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Issue #1507      29 June 2011

SA public sector ready to do battle

Public sector unions are prepared for a showdown with the Rann government over job cuts, the removal of negotiated conditions and attacks on services to the community. The results of disastrous changes to WorkCover are racking up and are another major irritant to the strained relations between the state government and workers in South Australia. The SA Unions executive will meet this Friday (July 1) to assess progress, if any, made during negotiations with the government over the raft of regressive changes. If the verdict is negative, industrial action will be taken on July 29.

The dispute flared up last September when the then Treasurer, Kevin Foley, handed down the state budget. Foley was keen to preserve the AAA rating for SA’s finances and the community and the public sector were expected to pay the price. Housing Trust rents were jacked up. Fines and charges were raised. Charges for car parking at hospitals were raised and extended prompting protests at the Hampstead Rehabilitation Centre where patients and visitors were to be stung $13 a day for parking.

Worst of all the budget measures was the axing of 3,700 public sector jobs. Outpatient services were cut by $76.1 million over the next four years. Leave loading for all non-shift workers was to be scrapped and the formula for calculating long service leave was fiddled to deliver a cut. Conditions negotiated through enterprise bargaining were simply legislated away. The precedent was set for what is happening now in NSW under the O’Farrell Liberal government. Police were spared in a move calculated to divide public sector reaction and minimise the public backlash.

It didn’t work. Several large protests later, the state’s public servants are still in no mood to roll over and cop it. The Public Service Association is taking a decision by the Industrial Relations Commission – that it had no power to determine if the government breached an enterprise bargaining agreement with its employees – to the High Court.

“In September 2010 when then treasurer Kevin Foley handed down the budget, he breached the enterprise agreement the government had been party to by removing recreational leave loading, changing long service leave entitlements and by threatening job security, which were all protected in the enterprise agreement,” PSA general secretary Jan McMahon said.

Some hoped that a new state treasurer and a new budget would blunt the government’s attack on the community. A pre-budget leak that leave loading would be restored lifted some spirits. An undertaking was made to honour job security for the life of the current parliament (expected to end in March 2014). But when Jack Snelling’s first budget was delivered earlier this month, another bombshell was delivered. A further 400 public sector positions were to go bringing the total job losses to over 4,100.

Snelling and Minister for Public Sector Management, Gail Gago, have been speaking to unions. Long service leave has been discussed but there has been no breakthrough. While this has been happening, 700 public sector jobs have already gone. The remaining workers are expected to take up the strain caused by the loss of colleagues. Morale among staff of front line services has taken another blow.

Strained services are failing to meet demand. Public health is just one example. The South Australian Salaried Medical Officers Association (SASMOA) and the Australian Medical Association recently reported that SA has a shortage of about 400 beds. “There are seriously ill patients in genuine need who can’t access that service because there is not enough capacity to go around,” SASMOA’s past president Dr David Pope told The Advertiser. Adelaide’s Royal Adelaide Hospital, Noarlunga Health Service, Lyell McEwin Hospital and Flinders Medical Centre were all at or above capacity last Thursday night.

A backdown from the Rann government is unlikely without a fight. It is loyally following the neo-liberal agenda, which hasn’t finished with the public sector by a long way. The alternative premier, the Liberal’s Isobel Redmond, has undertaken to “at least deal honestly with the unions.” There will be no mercy from that quarter. SA’s public sector unions are ready for a tough battle and they’ll need to be. The future of public sector jobs, collective bargaining and the viability of vital services to the community are all at stake. Defeat is not an option.  

Next article – Intervention: Time to go back to basics

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