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John Passant

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June 2011
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O’Farrell – the worst attacks on workers in a generation

Barry O’Farrell recently led the Coalition to an unprecedented victory in the NSW state election. Labor was all but wiped out in March, suffering its worst electoral defeat ever. However O’Farrell achieved this by deception. His government is a fraud and the current attacks on working people are the worst in generations.

O’Farrell adopted a soft and cuddly, extremely small target approach to campaigning in the recent election. Rather than enunciating any clear policies, he simply proffered motherhood statements about cleaning up the mess and providing better services. Occasionally he even seemed to the left of the ALP. He certainly did not present himself as a class warrior. Many workers had held their nose in 2007 when voting Labor. After all, the threat of WorkChoices was still very much alive, and Howard was still in government. Far fewer could stomach doing that again this year.

The ALP in NSW is in an even bigger crisis than its federal counterpart, and has been hopelessly divided – over power privatisation and much else. Their government was perceived as old, corrupt and incompetent. With declining services and infrastructure all around, it was also seen as a government for property developers and the big end of town. Many asked how the Liberals could be worse. A poll just prior to election day indicated that only 24 per cent of voters thought the Coalition deserved to win, but almost everyone thought Labor deserved to lose.

In their first ten weeks the Coalition has been appalling. They have a large majority in the lower house, and the support of the Christian Democrats and the Shooters and Fishers in the upper house. The Environment Department has been abolished and there have been moves to abolish environmental protection in marine conservation parks. They have reneged on the Solar Bonus Scheme. The ferries are to be privatised. The ability of unions to prosecute negligent employers over workplace injuries has been attacked. And the government will not support moves to redress the woefully inadequate remuneration of workers in the female-dominated community services sector.

But worst of all has been the government’s attack on public sector workers, the Industrial Relations Amendment (Public Sector Conditions of Employment) Bill 2011. John Robertson, the former head of Unions NSW and now Opposition Leader, has rightly described the changes as “worse than WorkChoices”. Others have made comparisons with the attacks in Wisconsin in the USA.

From a worn-out script, the incoming government claimed that the cupboard was bare and that there was a $4.5 billion budget black hole. This was simply untrue and failed to stand up to the slightest scrutiny. They proposed a 2.5 per cent public sector wage cap, based largely on two arguments. The first was that this had been ALP policy and that they were merely seeking to continue and enforce this. The second was to argue that the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) had been unsuccessful in holding public sector wages to this level. Payments above the 2.5 per cent were meant to be offset by savings and productivity gains – in simple terms, under-staffing, cutbacks and work intensification.

The Liberals argued that the promised savings had not materialised. Their legislation removes discretion from the IRC, meaning that the parliament will set wages and conditions for the public sector. Furthermore for pay increases above 2.5 per cent the government wants savings to be made upfront, prior to the pay increase – which would then occur in a backdated and devalued fashion.

O’Farrell has argued that public sector wages have increased by over 21 per cent since 1997, while in Queensland this had been 14 per cent, in Victoria 15 per cent, and in the private sector it was 11 per cent. However actual wages are comparable with the public sector in other states, and in some cases are lower. They are 8 per cent lower than comparable work in the private sector.

Furthermore had O’Farrell’s policy been in place over this period, workers in the public sector would be between $9,000 and $15,000 worse off a year. Inflation is currently running at 3.3 per cent – so workers are facing wage cuts, job cuts and a loss of working conditions, with no recourse to arbitration or bargaining.

It is this last point which makes the situation such a game-changer. Unlike Labor’s approach, the unions have now effectively been locked out of any say in the process of determining wages and conditions, as they have done for the past century.

There is certainly an argument to say that the unions and Labor have paved the way to this point. Indeed Michael Coutts-Trotter, former chief of staff to Labor Treasurer Michael Egan and husband of federal Labor MP Tanya Plibersek, is said to be one of the architects of O’Farrell’s policy. It is a point that is true in a more general sense too. Unions have rarely consulted or mobilised their members around the deals they have done with their Labor mates in government. However there are hard ideologues in the Coalition and business driving the agenda now, having seized an opportunity.

Because union officials mediate between workers and bosses, seeking compromises within the rules, the current position is not one that unions can tolerate. The struggle becomes not just about the wages and conditions of public sector employees, but also about the very survival and relevance of these unions.

The Coalition has recognised that when unions are weak, their industrial muscle flabby from long-term lack of use, it’s the employers who benefit from arbitration. If the unions were in a stronger position, the government would be very keen to keep arbitration as a way of moderating and disciplining the demands of the workforce.

So what has been the response and what can we expect?

Unions NSW collected 15,000 signatures on petitions to present to parliament within a week. They urged their members to lobby and email the cross benches. There were rallies called outside parliament on short notice as the debate on the legislation went before the Legislative Assembly last week.

Labor and particularly Greens MLAs filibustered vigorously in the Assembly, hoping to delay the passage of this draconian legislation for a week and to raise awareness of the issue. The Coalition, having come to agreements with the “Guns and Moses” cross benches to exempt police and local government workers, guillotined the debate (with a mechanism not used for over 100 years!) and there is little to be done before the legislation comes into effect.

Throughout all of this the media coverage has been sparse and low key – as if this erosion of workers’ rights, wages and conditions for the 400,000 employees of the NSW government (the biggest employer in the state!) was a minor matter. O’Farrell has trotted out the line of sticking to Labor’s policy of 2.5 per cent wage increases, and there has been little challenge to this. After all who could argue against keeping public sector wages under control?

For now there seems to be very little recognition of how these changes will flow on and affect other workers. Nor how it will further damage vital frontline services for working people in NSW. But this could change, and change quickly.

The PSA has instituted overtime bans, and other unions will also roll out various forms of work-to-rule and work bans. The Police Association has indicated that it will stand with other public sector unions, despite the exemption of police from the changes at this stage. Unions NSW has of course talked about a community campaign similar to the “Your Rights at Work” campaign against WorkChoices. They need to start calling mass rallies. No one has the luxury of waiting for four years, or possibly even eight or 12 years, for the return of another rotten Labor government.

Amongst some of the more left wing unions, such as the FBEU and the Teachers Federation, there does seem to be some prospect of more serious industrial action. If unions see this as an opportunity and go on the front foot against these attacks, it could just be a chance to really rebuild the union movement. It’s the only way to tear up the legislation and protect the interests of the workforce. But it’s going to take some very hard decisions and some very hard work – including some serious rank and file mobilisation.

This article, by Chris Moore, first appeared in Socialist Alternative.

Readers might also like to look at O’Farrell attacks unions and wages: bring Tahrir Square to Sydney.



Comment from Troy
Time June 10, 2011 at 2:15 pm

O’farrell is easily flying under the radar. Not many people are aware of his scheme but the unionists and the odd member. How about getting this bloody information out to the main stream media for goodness sake. Put some pressure on this guy and his party.

Comment from Andrew Jackson
Time June 13, 2011 at 10:46 am

The basic premise of all of the comments above are that it is a choivce between the evil of Coalition Economic POlicies and the Evil of Green ALP Social policies.

THere is are alternatives which are economically responsible, pro worker and opposedd to pro communist Greens.

Vote DLP.
Andrew Jackson
DLP Queensland President

Comment from PAUL WALTER
Time June 13, 2011 at 6:15 pm

Yeah, he is Australia’s Cameron. The Brits couldn’t wake to Cameron and the NSWelsh for similar explicable reasons relating the previous government, didn’t wake up to O’feral, till it was too late.