The last month has seen nurses, teachers, railworkers, and other public employees in New South Wales strike for above-inflation wages and improved conditions.
Teachers, nurses, midwives, transport workers, and other New South Wales (NSW) public sector workers have been on strike over the last month, demanding adequate wage rises and an end to unsustainable workloads. It’s a welcome revival of industrial militancy after record low strike rates over the last few years. Given the conditions workers are expected to put up with across the country, the strikes could signal the beginning of a broader wave of union struggle.
From the Pandemic to Pay Cuts
Teachers, nurses, midwives, and railworkers have now spent years on the frontlines of the ongoing pandemic. In return for putting their health on the line, the state government is rewarding them with ongoing poor conditions and stagnant wages.
While Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe notes that inflation will likely rise to 7 percent, the Liberal Dominic Perrottet government has offered public sector workers a paltry 3 percent pay rise. This would amount to roughly a 3 percent pay cut in real terms — indeed, the real week-to-week cut is higher, given a superannuation increase makes up a portion of this offer. Worse, this offer comes after a measly 2.5 percent rise last year that itself followed a year of frozen wages in 2020 under Perrottet’s predecessor, Gladys Berejiklian.
Despite their hard work as essential frontline workers during the pandemic, public sector workers are facing real pay cuts at a time when wages desperately need to keep up with the rising cost of living. Indeed, the wage cuts will not be limited to public sector workers. Wages for teachers in the public system set a benchmark for teachers working in the private sector.
Stagnant wages aren’t the only problem facing Australian workers. In addition to the same wage caps, NSW railworkers are fighting to defend their safety at work. The state government is insisting that railworkers must operate the new intercity fleet against warnings from the Rail, Tram, and Bus Union (RTBU) that without modifications, it is unsafe.
At the same time, labor shortages in teaching have forced staff to adopt unbearable workloads to pick up the slack. Nearly 60 percent of Australian school teachers report a desire to leave the profession, with many citing increasingly heavy workloads as their main motivating factor. Teachers have been facing immense pressure to prepare lessons, mark work, attend meetings, and fulfill burdensome paperwork requirements in limited time.
Similar things are going on in the health care sector as New South Wales faces both a shortage of nurses and a lack of government-mandated nurse-to-patient ratios. Nurses and midwives are expected to care for a growing number of patients in an already overburdened health system. As NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association’s general secretary Brett Holmes explained to the Sydney Morning Herald, “Patients are being put in a lottery system, where depending on the day, they may or may not get the nursing and midwifery care that should be provided to them.” These shortages are even worse in regional areas. In one case, a shortage of staff saw a single fill-in doctor and a single enrolled nurse run the entire Yass hospital in the Southern Tablelands in the lead-up to Christmas.
In large part, the pandemic has contributed to deteriorating conditions at work. New South Wales is rapidly approaching a total of three million COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began, and daily case numbers have consistently been in the thousands since late last year. This has placed a huge strain on many sectors.
School teachers have been burdened with additional administrative work while simultaneously being required to manage large, merged classes thanks to staff shortages.
Health care workers are also feeling the consequences of staff shortages. In 2021, roughly 42 percent of nurses reported feeling less willing to continue working in their profession, fearing exposure to the virus, growing workloads, and scarce access to personal protective equipment. No doubt this was exacerbated by the fact that many casual, part-time, and agency nurses lack the same sick-leave entitlements as permanent and full-time staff. Perrottet’s offer of a meager $3,000 bonus to health care staff is hardly adequate compensation.
Workers Fighting Back
While tight labor markets and worker shortages have created increasingly stressful workloads, they’ve also given workers the opportunity to bargain for better wages and conditions. Tight labor markets tend to strengthen workers’ bargaining position as employers are left scrounging around to find staff. The impetus for industrial action, and its chances for success, can be much stronger when workers know that their bosses will struggle to find replacements.
Tens of thousands of public sector workers covered by the Public Service Association, including park rangers, school administrators, state librarians, public servants in government departments, and others went on strike across New South Wales last month.
Then on June 30, over 20,000 public school and private Catholic school teachers marched from Hyde Park to the New South Wales Parliament demanding above-inflation wage rises and better teaching conditions. It marked the first time in a quarter century that public and independent school teachers have engaged in joint strike action and was the third statewide teachers’ strike in six months.
Likewise, rank-and-file members of the Nurses and Midwives’ Association voted to reject Perrottet’s paltry 3 percent wage increase offer and instead to go on strike for an above-inflation raise of 7 percent. Like the teachers, it was the third time this year that nurses and midwives voted in favor of taking industrial action.
The RTBU has already had a small taste of victory after extracting some limited promises from the state government to fix the new intercity fleet’s safety issues. However, the offer was contingent on the union accepting the government’s new enterprise agreement, and railworkers rightly refused to trade safety for their wages. Nevertheless, it’s an important concession considering the NSW government has spent years trying to force railworkers to operate the unsafe new intercity fleet.
While the recent surge in industrial action hasn’t yet become a strike wave, it’s an important start. Winning essential wage increases will help keep NSW workers afloat while the cost of living keeps rising and will be crucial to rebuilding their industrial confidence.
Indeed, if public sector workers in NSW can win after uniting to take on a hostile government, it could boost the confidence of workers in other states and industries. It’s clear that after years of stagnant wage growth, there’s an appetite for big wage rises and improved conditions. This includes states with Labor governments like Western Australia, where public sector unions have begun negotiations demanding real, above-inflation wage rises.
There is every possibility that our tight labor market will give workers across Australia the motivation and leverage to achieve some much-needed wins. And this, in turn, may be the key to reviving industrial militancy. As the NSW strikes show, union struggle is set to rise — and if workers are prepared to fight, we might just win.