- by Richard Titelius
- The Guardian
- Issue #2012
In mid-2021, unions with members in the Western Australian Public Sector formed the Public Sector Alliance (PSA) to present a united position on a wage increase to the WA state government of Premier Mark McGowan – also the State Treasurer.
The PSA was originally comprised of the Community and Public Sector Union/Civil Service Association (CPSU/CSA), State School Teachers Union, Health Services Union, United Workers Union, Rail Tram and Bus Union, United Professional Firefighters, Professionals WA, WA Prison Officers Union and peak trade union body, Unions WA. It has since been joined by the WA Police Union. On 12th November 2021, the PSA held a mass meeting which was attended by over 400 delegates, members, and officials at which they made their case for the formation of the Alliance. They agreed to urge the government to make an offer that was in keeping with inflation and acknowledged the hard work of public sector workers during the pandemic and since.
The government had a robust surplus and they wanted to engage in genuine bargaining for wages instead of a wages cap which they had endured over the last five years. Just before Christmas, Premier McGowan announced a government wages policy which was essentially 2.5 per cent over two years. At the time inflation was less than 3 per cent per annum but early in 2022 as the pandemic started to ease and economic activity picked up, inflation jumped to over five per cent nationally and 7.6 per cent in Perth itself – the highest of any capital city.
The CPSU/CSA entered into negotiations with the state government to hammer out an agreement. In May 2022 in a climate of rapidly evolving economic and financial conditions settled their claim at 4.75 per cent for the first year and 4.5 per cent for the second year plus a number of improvements to conditions including Infectious Diseases Leave and the Right to Disconnect. United Workers under the slogan of, “5 to survive!”, have gone for a similar claim. The Premier has yet to respond meaningfully to any of the pay claims of public sector unions.
Against this backdrop the Fair Work Commission handed down a decision increasing the federal minimum wage by 5.2 per cent and 4.6 per cent for award workers close to the minimum wage. On the same day the WA PSA held a Mass Bargaining meeting at the Workers Embassy over the road from the WA State Parliament building. It was attended by over 150 union delegates and officials. The first speaker was CPSU/ CSA State Secretary, Rikki Hendon: “We are at a point where we are frustrated and struggling with a framework that has not delivered decent wage outcomes for public servants.” “We need genuine bargaining to deliver a proper wage outcome.”
The next speaker, Minister for Industrial Relations Bill Johnstone, himself a former union member, reminded those unionists present that workers need to be represented by unions that deliver better wages and conditions for their members. Johnstone recognised that not everyone is happy with the bargaining process, however the ALP government had delivered on increased permanency in the public sector.
He was followed by a member of United Workers Union – Cindy, an Education Assistant in a low socio economic group in Rockingham, one of Perth’s southern suburbs and coincidently part of Mark McGowan’s electorate. Cindy had been working as an Education Assistant for eighteen years and had seen in that time that life had become more difficult for students and for their parents. Cindy also needed a part-time job to make ends meet and even that was not enough when her rent was increased by $120. Her three adult children are now helping her with the rent. Cindy likes her work as she enjoys being able to make a difference, often the difference between a child giving up on schooling or continuing through so they have more and better choices in life. Cindy is also one of many workers considering leaving her job for a better paying one to make ends meet – in this case going into a mental health support role. Without a decent wage rise, workers will leave the sector.
The next speaker was Erica, a lab technician in a high school, who has seen the lives not only of fellow workers go backwards in real terms but also the students that they assist to help them lift their life chances in life.
Craig, a member of the Health Services Union and professionally a child psychologist said that there were people leaving the industry as they were overworked, including by being given long wait lists for clients they have little chance of giving prompt or adequate care. Cheryl another member of the Health Services Union added that all of us had helped keep the state going through COVID: “Look after us, respect us and pay us [what we are worth].”
The workers in the public sector have done their part and now it is up to the government to deliver a wage increase to help attract and retain good workers and that keeps up with inflation – which the current government offer of 2.5 per cent per annum would not deliver.
After the rally at the Workers Embassy, the delegates and other union officials walked to the front of parliament house to deliver their message to those inside.
The Communist Party of Australia supports the WA Public Sector Alliance in their campaign for wage and work justice which is long overdue without which workers wages would go backwards and some workers might be forced to leave the sector. The CPA recognises unions and their members will have to step up their campaign in order to have the government respond appropriately to their demands.