The state’s top union leader says he is “deeply disappointed and frustrated” at the Minns government over its pay offer to teachers, warning Labor it risks losing the support of tens of thousands of public sector workers.
In a significant escalation of the unfolding tensions between Labor and the state’s workers, Unions NSW Secretary Mark Morey told the Herald the NSW government’s pay offer to teachers resembled the Coalition’s public service wage cap and risked an outpouring of hostility from one of its key electoral allies.
Morey’s intervention comes after NSW Teachers Federation president Angelo Gavrielatos accused the government of an “act of betrayal” following a breakdown in pay negotiations after a one-year agreement was withdrawn this week.
Gavrielatos said negotiations with the government had begun in “good faith” at the end of April, with an agreement reached on May 31 at a meeting with the NSW Education Minister Prue Car and Treasurer Daniel Mookhey.
That deal would have seen salaries for graduate teachers increase by 12 per cent, while the highest teacher salaries would rise by 8 per cent. The rest of the teacher workforce would receive 4 per cent plus 0.5 per cent superannuation in the first year.
But the government has since offered a four-year agreement which would include a 2.5 per cent cap on wages from the second year, prompting the Teachers Federation to announce “political action” against the government which would escalate to industrial action in September if the issue wasn’t resolved.
“It’s not just about teachers, it’s all the workers who stood out on polling booths or voted for Labor because they wanted change,” Morey said.
“It’s an issue of trust, and being brave enough to lead and stand up for the mandate that they were elected on.
“Otherwise a whole lot of people who voted on the hope of change will become despondent. They’ll lose them.”
Morey said the government’s subsequent offer had raised alarm within the union movement because it mirrored the former Coalition government’s controversial wages cap.
Removing the cap was a key campaign promise by Premier Chris Minns in opposition, and the government has made much of its one-year 4 per cent offer to public sector unions.
“The government needs to clarify exactly what are they actually doing here,” Morey said. “Is there a cap, or isn’t there? Is this the new wage policy, or is 2.5 per cent just a figure they’ve pulled out of the air? It’s lower than what the previous state government was offering.”
“We were told, promised, before the election that they were going to scrap the cap. Well, this looks a lot like the same cap.”
Morey’s comments represent the most serious sign yet that relations between the union movement and the new Minns government have deteriorated since the March election.
Health Services Union Secretary Gerard Hayes backed Morey’s claims that the government’s 2.5 per cent pay offer to teachers was a wage cap.
“It is absolutely a wage cap,” he told the Herald. “As soon as you’re talking about productivity gains and savings you are talking about a wage cap.”
Trying to hinge pay increases off future productivity gains failed to account for 12 years of gains unrecognised by the previous government, he said.
A spokeswoman for the NSW government said resolving the pay and condition of public schools teachers would help resolve the state’s teacher shortage crisis.
“The NSW government’s wages offer has already busted the wages cap. The cap will formally cease to exist in September,” she said.
“We have been engaged in active and productive negotiations with the Teachers’ Federation. There is a lot we both agree on and we want to continue these negotiations and resolve the remaining elements.”
While Hayes has so far been vocal in his criticism of the pace of wage reform by the new government, the Unions NSW boss has until this point kept any disquiet inhouse.
But, Morey said, the collapse in negotiations with the Teachers Federation had left him feeling “deeply disappointed and frustrated”, a feeling he said was shared by many public sector workers.
“I think there is a great sense of disappointment. It can be fixed, I think, but at this point people are disappointed in where we are at. It’s a really pivotal point for the NSW government to show they are serious about their commitment to essential workers in this state,” he said.
“The teachers I have spoken to are bewildered. They don’t understand why the government is doing this.”
After Gavrielatos went public with his criticism on Thursday, Car insisted negotiations with the Teachers Federation were ongoing. She said “ensuring a significant uplift in teacher salaries” was one of the government’s main priorities.
However, she suggested identifying and agreeing on productivity improvements was a key sticking point in the negotiations.
But Morey said it was difficult for the unions to negotiate on long-term changes without the Minns government’s mooted industrial relations reforms being in place, saying the initial one-year deal it offered had represented a compromise.
“People are saying to me, promises were made, they should be kept, and then let’s have negotiation about how we do other things around productivity,” he said.
“They think we’re idiots, but were not. We understand debt, but it’s a matter of an eye on the future. These guys were elected on a mandate to fix the health and education systems, not to eradicate debt in 18 months.
“We understand they’re facing a difficult budget position, and we’re prepared to negotiate, but they have to honour their promises.”
Public Service Association general secretary Stewart Little said the ongoing teachers dispute demonstrated the need for an independent arbiter to mediate wage negotiations between unions and the government, and a resolution was imperative to resolve the ongoing staff shortfalls across the state’s public sector.
“The teachers dispute illustrates perfectly the need to reinstate an independent industrial umpire. There is a recruitment and retention crisis right across the NSW Public Sector,” he said.