By Andrew Martin
Despite a massive rise in inflation of over 7.3% in the twelve months to the September quarter, unions have yet to make any great leaps forward. There have been some favourable results in enterprise agreement (EA) campaigning, but each struggle remains isolated from others. So far, it seems that public servants remain at the forefront of struggle, particularly nurses.
Workers on minimum wage will have received a 5.2% pay rise which will flow onto other awards including aviation, hospitality and travel sectors to name just a few. Although this is an inadequate pay rise, the minimum wage has not been lifted by that magnitude for many years – if ever. Meanwhile, annual wage growth is 2.4%.
Another win is paid domestic violence leave which will now be a workplace right for all workers. The EA negotiated between the Australian Services Union (ASU) and the Surf Coast Shire in Victoria in 2010 was the first time domestic violence leave was secured. It has since become a standard union bargaining claim.
The rise in the number of strikes in the United Kingdom – the highest in five years – has aroused attention here. The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) interviewed a leader of the British Trade Union Congress (TUC), Kevin Rowan. They are interested in how unions are reshaping the political conversation. However, it is unlikely the ACTU would replicate the same sort of strike actions that the TUC are supporting.
My own union, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU), remains firmly focused on the transition to renewable energy, with its officials touring the mining towns, Collie in Western Australia (WA), Singleton in New South Wales (NSW) and Wangi. They have been lobbying NSW Labor hard to establish statutory authorities to oversee the transition – allowing for voluntary redundancies and major restructuring of the energy sector.
According to a report from the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, Australia will generate half of its electricity from renewable energy within three years – a major shift from fossil fuels.
The dispute at Knauf (formerly Boral) in Melbourne was settled favourably by the Construction Forestry Maritime Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU) which was able to secure all the main demands of the workers – the biggest win being the restriction of the use of labour hire. The multinational corporation had locked its workers out indefinitely on 15 September and it is a tremendous result after 40 days of picketing
The cost of living crisis continues to override everything with inflation tipped to reach 8%. Tropical levels of rain have also drenched the East Coast and unions are increasingly paying closer attention to industrial matters that arise from climate change disasters.
Climate disaster leave
Climate change is changing the industrial landscape and workers are increasingly suffering from its impacts. The frequent occurrence of natural disasters has led unionists to demand paid leave to deal with their aftermath and it is youth who are spearheading that push.
The Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) has become Australia’s largest youth organisation. It has a high density of union membership in its main office through the ASU. Some of their staff are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers and they have expressed the need to return home to their communities to deal with climate disasters.
Under current employment laws, the only provision to deal with climate disasters is to take community leave if you are involved in the State Emergency Service (SES) or other volunteer emergency services. The AYCC first introduced this leave in 2019 as company policy, but it now forms part of the EA.
Climate change will alter the nature of work itself. There are many work environments where it is not possible to keep workers cool and working in heat policies are becoming more important to enforce. Infrastructure needs to change radically – it has to go beyond air conditioning buildings. Workers subject to inclement weather need better protections.
Hopefully, climate disaster leave is included in future union negotiations.
Nurses demand 10% pay rise
It appears the campaign for nurses in NSW for a 7% pay rise has reverberated around the country and has support from the public. The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) is the biggest union in WA, covering 12,000 workers, but it has not traditionally been a militant union. However, it held a day of action in mid-October with a march through Murray Street Mall to protest Labor premier Mark McGowan’s latest pay offer.
Public sector workers have borne the brunt of ‘budget repair’ for years. The WA Labor government has capped wage rises at $1,000 per annum for all public sector unions. This austerity has helped it sure up business confidence, improve its credit rating and pay down billions of dollars of debt.
McGowan has also been able to limit the amount of GST WA pays. A long-standing grievance of all WA governments is the perception that it pays more than its fair share, something that has historically helped fuel secessionist sentiment in the West.
These actions are symptomatic of the fact that nurses have been stretched to the limit. 70% of the health budget is taken up by wages – something all governments have been trying to suppress. However, the previous Liberal government was never under any pressure to reduce debt and was able to spend big on infrastructure programs such as the Perth Stadium.
McGowan has invested in public transport. The Metronet rail project which (as per usual) has blown out in cost, has provided much needed employment to blue collar workers. But one thing the government won’t do is ease the cost of living pressures. This is a contradiction for the government.
McGowan has been boasting about the state of WA’s finances which are boosted by rises in commodity prices and higher demand. He is one of WA’s most popular leaders in its history.
The following is an account of a mass meeting held by the nurses which highlights some of the industrial tensions in the West.
From Red Flag October 16 (abridged):
A mass meeting of Australian Nursing Federation members in Perth has voted to demand a 10 percent pay increase, a Consumer Price Index top-up and a one-off payment of $4,500. They are also demanding “enforceable nurse/midwife-to-patient ratios” as part of an escalating campaign of industrial action.
The Western Australian Labor government is offering an insulting 3 percent pay “rise” (a real wage cut) and a one-off $3,000 payment.
Two thousand five hundred nurses filled the Convention Centre for a stop-work meeting, blowing whistles and holding signs reading “Ratios—it’s a matter of life and death” and “1:4 or out the door”.
Union officials’ initial motion called for a pay increase of 5 percent plus a CPI top-up, but this was increased by the meeting after speeches from the floor by socialists.
Rachel Goldsborough, a Socialist Alternative member, spoke first, arguing for a pay rise of at least 8 percent.
Chris Jenkins from the Socialist Alliance followed Goldsborough, saying nurses should demand 10 percent.
Severity assessment code 1 clinical incidents—events that have or could have caused serious harm or death as a result of the care provided (or not provided)—at Perth Children’s Hospital have doubled since 2019.
One union member told Red Flag that working in a hospital has never felt more unsafe. “Being short multiple nurses per shift has become the new norm”.
Meanwhile, Mark McGowan’s Labor government continues to impose austerity on public sector workers.
To add insult to injury, last month Treasury revealed that the state surplus was a record $6 billion, up hundreds of millions of dollars from the May budget.
The nurses’ mass meeting authorised escalating industrial action, starting with bans over the next four weeks, followed by day-long stoppages, bed closures and “indefinite strike action”.