Judging by last Wednesday’s rally it looks like the NSW Government may have bitten off more than they can chew with their new industrial relations agenda.
12,000 public sector workers blocked Macquarie Street in what was the biggest demonstration outside the NSW Parliament in 20 years. Organisers had planned for 5000 attendees. To see more than twice that number turn out in the pouring rain surprised a few, and heartened many.
Speaking for my union, the Fire Brigade Employees’ Union (FBEU), we pulled over 30 fire engines from around the Sydney area into a stop work meeting held immediately prior to the demonstration. The on-duty crews were joined by 400 off-duty firefighters. For a small union this was a solid result, and one that bodes well for the campaign inside the fire brigades against these laws.
In Wollongong and Newcastle, FBEU members made up the majority of those attending local actions called in solidarity with the Sydney demonstration.
So the rally was bigger and better than expected. But the legislation has now been passed by the O’Farrell Government. The question now is: what next?
The campaign against O’Farrell’s attacks on NSW public sector workers’ entitlements is still in its infancy. Events have moved so quickly that basic organisational and political tasks are yet to be undertaken.
On the fundamental question of how to brand the campaign, there is real debate.
Some argue that the key issue is the Industrial Relations Commission, the Government’s attack upon its independence, and the consequent fact that NSW public sector workers are now the only employees in the country with no recourse to an independent court when in dispute with their employer. This is a strong argument and it is one that resonates with many.
Others, myself included, believe the emphasis should be on the inevitable degradation of public services that this legislation will deliver. By insisting that any pay rises that match inflation be funded by "employee related cost offsets", O’Farrell is trying to force public sector workers to sell off parts of their industries in order to stop their wages going backward. This is bad news not only for those employees, but for anyone who relies on their services. And that is pretty much everyone in NSW.
As these questions are being worked through there is a variety of actions already underway. Rallies around regional NSW are planned over the coming weeks and there is a push to get local councils to take a position on the new IR laws. The possibility of a legal challenge to the legislation is also being explored.
Encouragingly there is talk of statewide industrial action in August. This is yet to be confirmed but it is, I believe, an essential part of any strategy to take on O’Farrell. Community campaigning, strategic lobbying, legal challenges and the like are important, but we cannot afford to wait until the next election and hope for a change of government. The challenge for the NSW public sector unions now is to make these laws unworkable, and that will require in the first instance public sector unions being prepared to take on-the-job action.
I’ve said this before, and undoubtedly I will say this again before this campaign is over, but while the Coalition has a massive majority, they have nowhere near the numbers required to staff every fire engine, every school, every hospital, drive every bus, and perform every other function that the state’s 400,000 public sector workers perform.
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