On Wednesday, firefighters across NSW stopped work for two hours as a part of the broader movement against the NSW Government’s draconian new industrial relations laws. They were joined by nurses, teachers, bus drivers, police, and many other public sector workers at a 12,000-strong rally outside parliament.
Firefighters do not take industrial action lightly. The nature of our job means that disrupting service is something we are very reluctant to do. But the O’Farrell Government has given us no choice.
The IR legislation currently before parliament does three things.
Firstly, it pegs all future wage rises at 2.5 per cent per annum — well below inflation.
Secondly, it strips the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) of its power to award any pay outcome outside of this figure — or indeed to award any outcome in respect of conditions that clashes with government policy.
And finally, it radically changes the understanding of what productivity is, and how to achieve it.
Let’s start with the 2.5 per cent policy: that this is a backward step for public sector workers is self-evident. It is important to note though that this is merely an extension of the former Labor government’s policy. It’s ugly, but the policy is not new.
The crippling of the IRC is a more radical step. The IRC has been often characterised as a boss’s court. Certainly for more militant unions, like the FBEU, the IRC has at times acted as a brake upon what on-the-job action we have taken. But they have also been a part of a 100 year social democratic consensus whereby the courts had a modicum of independence, and could act to curtail the more aggressive employers in their dealings with the less well organised. By binding their decisions to government policy the NSW Government has effectively removed them as a nominally independent umpire. This means that NSW public sector workers are the only workers in the country who do not have legal recourse when dealing with their employer.
It is on the question of productivity that the truly radical nature of the O’Farrell legislation becomes apparent. Since the Hawke/Keating Accord with the union movement in the 1980s productivity has been enshrined at the heart of wage negotiation. Convincing the labour movement to accept this was a central part of Labor’s modernising project for Australian capital, and was arguably the beginning of the union movement’s long-term decline. Regardless, there has been an expectation for 30 years that increased productivity be recognised through wage increases.
This is now a thing of the past in the NSW public sector. Instead "employee related cost offsets" is the sole basis on which real wage maintenance can be achieved.
This means that either jobs or conditions will have to be sacrificed for workers to maintain their real wages. For firefighters in particular this leaves us with a choice we cannot be expected to make. Either we see our wages go backward — or we sell off firefighters’ jobs and conditions so that those remaining can see pay rises that match inflation. Either we lose — or the community more broadly does.
Yesterday’s action was the first round of what will be a long fight. But O’Farrell has in a sense made it easy for us. The scale of this attack is such that we have no alternative but to fight. And while the Coalition enjoys a substantial majority in the Legislative Assembly, that majority is not nearly big enough to staff every fire station, every school, every hospital, every bus, and every other public sector workplace in the state.
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