Public sector strikes in NSW need community solidarity to win

Striking workers are fighting for their rights and our community. The need for public support around public jobs and public infrastructure is important now more than ever.

Public sector unions have been taking industrial action across NSW over the past few months. You’ve likely seen them on your news feed, and you’ve been impacted by the lack of workers in some of the most essential public services in the state. The NSW Perrottet Government, as employers and public service providers, are who these actions target and are being taken in the context of a state-wide shortage of nurses, midwives and teachers. All the while hospital wait times are through the roof, public schools are without enough teachers and March figures show a low 71% punctuality rate for Sydney Trains. Union demands for more staffing, better pay and better workplace resources and rights across all public sector services are integral changes all communities in NSW will benefit from, and therefore must support. 

These actions are primarily occurring because of the NSW Liberal Government’s freeze on workers’ pay rates. Announced by the Berejikilian Government in early 2020 before the worst of the pandemic, this cap froze standard pay increases at 2.5%. The cap meant that workers’ pay rises were substantially lower than the rate of inflation, which was 3.5% at the end of 2021 according to the ABS. They’re almost always lower than the 2.5% maximum – nurses and midwives were offered a 0.3% pay rise in 2020. In real terms these ‘pay rises’ must be seen as pay cuts, given the rising cost of living

As a result, the essential workers who maintain our most important infrastructure and systems have been thrown under the wheels of poverty. Pay cuts don’t just cause workers immediate financial harm: as pay cuts build up year to year, workers lose thousands of dollars in lifetime superannuation returns. In the long term, this leaves public sector workers far worse off in their retirement.

Most university students will not have experienced such noticeable effects of industrial action in their lives before, and that is because the public sector has not taken strike action in years. This resurgence of industrial action is occurring in the context of a global pandemic that’s affected us all, especially public health sector workers who have been working tirelessly for the last three years. Teachers have gone above and beyond in the shift to online learning models and disrupted schooling. Thousands of essential workers were commuted to work on public transport to keep our state functioning. A pay cut now is a slap in the face!

Because communities are so reliant on the work of the public sector, it can feel more personal when we hear about the injustices these workers are facing in their workplaces compared to workers in the private sector. Bus drivers are being denied human decency when they can’t get bathroom breaks. Nurses are working in wards so drastically understaffed and under-resourced that many have quit the profession altogether. Paramedics have gone weeks straight of being on high alert where more than half their patients are first priority. This leaves patients in Emergency lines for hours waiting on life saving care. Public high school teachers are forced to merge classes to supervise students or leave senior students unsupervised ahead of exams.

After years of failed negotiations with a Liberal government that’s hostile to the public sector, taking industrial action is a no brainer. When schools are without teachers, when emergency room wait times are hours long, when train services are being cut, it’s clear that strikes aren’t crippling our infrastructure – austerity is. Negotiations with a government unwilling to listen to the lived experience of workers desperate for support lead nowhere. Strikes are our only solution to have these community voices heard and to win demands for well-resourced, well-funded public infrastructure that all communities deserve.

As community members, any anger we feel — from train delays or overnight stays in hospital waiting rooms — must be targeted at the Perrottet Government. Liberal Party policies supporting private corporations and defunding public services are unequivocally the reason that our public sector is hanging by the thread that is the goodwill of these workers.

Instead of addressing the strain on public service workers, Perrotet has taken these public sector unions and the workers they represent to the Industrial Relations Commission. This body, governed by NSW industrial law, can curtail industrial actions as it so pleases. In other words, there is effectively no right to strike in NSW. 

In the eleventh hour of various strikes and industrial actions, the Chief Commissioner (who also happens to be the wife of a NSW Liberal MP) has made the arbitrary decision that union actions are against the ‘interest of the public or the economy’. Such decisions deem the strikes illegal, slapping unions with fines and summonses to the Supreme Court. Workers get nonsense bureaucracy thrown at them when they’re desperate for change.

The only way for these workers to win big against a hostile Liberal government is through solidarity from their communities. These unions are fighting just as hard for the rights of our communities to access quality infrastructure, as they are fighting for their workplace rights. We must all be publicly supportive of workplace militancy from these workers. We must recognise that their commitment to industrial action is a commitment to their workplace and our communities.

If public sector nurses, midwives, teachers, transport workers and allied health workers win their demands, we will see wide, sweeping changes to public jobs and public workplaces. The changes will leave our communities better off after a pandemic, compared to the predicament the Perrottet Government has us in. They’ll also set a precedent to take industrial action, even if it’s against your government — because politicians and bosses aren’t the arbiters of fair community standards, the people are!  

So the next time you get off a bus, thank the bus driver and chuck in a cheeky ‘keep on with the strikes’, or pick up a yarn about strikes with your nurse the next time you’re in a hospital. Join your union and make sure you discuss the strikes these public sector workers are taking, so your workplace seeks encouragement from and lends solidarity to these workers. 

Be a cheeky activist — leave community letters of support in car windshields at hospitals or chalk (read: spray paint) a message of support around your local train station. Tell your mum to call your sibling’s teacher and encourage them to take strike action. Move motions of solidarity at your local residents’ community group, parent-teacher networks or student representative councils, so that more people are aware and get to share their support for these workers. And come along with a crew of mates to the NSW Parliament on the next strike day.