Opinion //

Why a public sector general strike is necessary to smash the public sector pay cap in NSW

The conservative strategy of the leadership of the Australian trade union movement won’t do.

The past year has seen a resurgence in industrial action in the NSW public sector. Teachers, nurses, transport workers and other public sector employees have all been on strike. After a decade of stagnating wages and skyrocketing corporate profits, this is a very welcome development. But even winning pay rises that just keep up with inflation will be a challenge. To smash the pay cap, there needs to be a rank and file-led campaign for a sector wide general strike.

Prior to the recent  public sector strikes, workers’ ability to exert power in the labour market had ebbed enormously, following decades of ruling class warfare and non combative union leadership. By 2020, overall union density had dropped from a high of 51 per cent in the late 1970s to less than 15 per cent, and the number of working days lost to strike action dropped nearly 90 per cent between 1985 and today. 

Partly, this was due to the bipartisan adoption of neoliberalism by successive governments in Australia and around the world. For example, restrictive anti-strike laws introduced by the Keating Government in 1993 make it nearly impossible to go on strike legally in Australia, robbing unions of the capacity to go on strike outside of enterprise bargaining periods or to strike in solidarity with workers in other sectors. But governments got away with this because the leaders of the Australian trade union movement preferred having a seat at the bargaining table to having to fight. 

The most consequential role played by the top union officials was in the 1983 Prices and Incomes Accord. The Accords were an agreement signed between the Hawke Labor government, employer associations and trade unions. They were signed in the midst of a deep recession and the result was a brutal, immediate transfer of wealth from workers to employers, as workers were forced to sacrifice their wages in a purported attempt to control inflation. The period was marked by a series of bitter industrial defeats for the working class, such as the breaking of the Australian pilots’ strike of 1989 and the deregistration of the militant Builders Labourers Federation. 

The decades since have been marked by a decrease in working class organisation, both quantitatively —  in terms of union membership —  and qualitatively. Few workers today were around during the struggles of the 1970s, and the traditions of union militancy have been mostly lost. 

The pandemic has provided another illustration of the failures of the strategy behind the Accords. Instead of fighting back, the leadership of the Australian trade union movement has given way to the demands of capital throughout the pandemic. At the start of the pandemic, Sally McManus proudly stated the union movement was going to “put aside all hostilities” towards governments and employers. When Gladys Berejyklian announced that public sector employees were to have their pay frozen, the Australian Council of Trade Unions mounted staunch resistance in the form of a meagre social media campaign. Subsequently, workers this year experienced the sharpest decline in real wages since the introduction of the GST. 

Rank and file union members have different interests and priorities to those of their officials. The Polish revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg noted how the emergence of a professional labour bureaucracy became a conservatising force in the German workers’ movement, describing the attitude of trade union leaders as risking “bureaucratism and a certain narrowness of outlook.” 

Luxemburg argues that professional bureaucrats came to prioritise the maintenance of the organisation over the outcomes for workers, with the union “changed into an end in itself.” 

This same logic plays out today. Instead of fighting the bosses, it’s about negotiating with them. You can’t demand too much, or else you risk damaging your negotiating position. This exact argument was used earlier this year by officials in the Nurses and Midwives Association (NMA) to argue against supporting a pay rise in line with inflation.

At a stop-work meeting of NMA delegates held during their state-wide strike on 28 June, two socialists moved a motion from the meeting floor rejecting the state government’s meagre offer of a 3 per cent pay rise, instead arguing for an above-inflation pay increase of at least 7 per cent. They were met with immediate dissent from the NMA officials who argued that this was unwinnable and advised members to accept Perrottet’s offer in the interim, fearing that asking for too much would result in a deadlock with the government. 

Despite winning a majority vote at the NSW NMA mass members meeting, union officials organised a re-running of votes on a branch-by-branch basis. However, members again rejected the union officials’ line to accept the 3 per cent pay offer because they knew that doing so would result in a real wage pay cut in the context of skyrocketing costs of living.

Following the vote, one rank-and-file member outlined a strategy going forward: “we absolutely need the trade union movement to not compromise on the question of pay, and to raise the stakes”. They continued: “Most of all, we need to organise joint strikes across different industries”.

The success of the 7 per cent wage claim in the NMA is just a taste of what workers could win if we had stronger rank-and-file organisations. Activists in different workplaces could link up with each other and argue that public sector workers shouldn’t just go out on strike, but that they should all go out at the same time, in a public sector general strike. If, instead of just having two activists prepared to argue publicly against the officials, we had dozens – or hundreds – then we could scare the government into not cutting another cent of workers’ wages. 

After a decade of a threadbare union presence, there is a real appetite to demand more now and step forward with pay claims through rank-and-file movements, without passively following the line of trade union officials. To take advantage of this moment, we should not make concessions to the state, instead focusing on building union militancy. Now is the time for workers to demand more.