‘Golden opportunity’: NSW Labor under pressure to deliver promised public sector wage rises

  • Published March 27, 2023

The Guardian, 27 March 2023

The incoming Labor premier of New South Wales, Chris Minns, will face immediate pressure from union leaders to come good on his promise to lift public sector wages and overhaul working conditions.

With counting suspended on Sunday, Labor was in reach of forming a slim majority government in NSW 12 years after it was swept from power in the landslide defeat of 2011.

The party had gained at least seven seats according to the ABC, while several others, including Ryde and Balmain in Sydney’s inner-west, Kiama in the state’s south, and, in a major surprise, Miranda in the Sutherland Shire, remained too close to call.

As Minns held his first meeting with senior members of his soon-to-be ministry team on Sunday to discuss immediate priorities, union leaders wasted no time signalling their intent to push the government from day one.

“Government is like a good golf swing – it’s all in the follow through,” the Health Services Union’s secretary Gerard Hayes said on Sunday.

“This is a golden opportunity for a new government, a young government, to look at what the future can be. I don’t want to mark time, I want to revolutionise things.”

Labor campaigned heavily during the election to scrap the controversial public sector wage cap and improving essential services.

With some of the largest unions in NSW – including the HSU, the Nurses and Midwives’ Association and the Public Sector Association (PSA) – due to begin negotiation on new pay deals this July, the pressure to deliver on those promises will begin quickly.

Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup
Stewart Little, the secretary of the PSA, said his union would “absolutely” be pushing the new government to lift wages beyond the 3.5% target identified by Minns during the final week of the campaign, while also targeting “relativity” issues in recent deals.

“There’s no doubt they have a mountain to climb in terms of addressing the structural issues created over the last 12 years. There are chronic worker shortages and the legacy of a lack of investment and that isn’t going to be fixed overnight,” Little said.

“But there is also no question our members will be seeking a fair wage rise. It won’t be anything like current inflation but I expect anything less than the realm of upwards of about 4% would be met with concerted opposition from the trade union movement.”

Minns said during the campaign’s final week that public sector workers would be paid above the Coalition’s existing cap of 3.5% because of budget savings and productivity gains baked into its election promises. That includes, for example, a $1.6bn saving by slashing the use of private labour hire companies by 25%.

Mark Morey, the head of Unions NSW, said he wanted to see “good will” brought back into bargaining, and will be pushing to see Labor’s plan for delivering on its election promises.

“They’ve made a number of undertakings on delivering for our teachers, nurses and paramedics around staffing levels, and we want to see the plan on how they’re going to deliver on those,” he said.

“We understand it has been 12 years of having the system run down and it will take time to get it back up but the key is to deliver on their commitments.”

In March, NSW rail workers received a pay rise above the longstanding cap after the federal industrial umpire found it could lead to “significant decline” in real wages.

Although the Rail, Tram and Bus Union’s agreement is administered under the federal system, Morey pointed to the extra 1% pay rise given to rail workers for 2022 and 2023 as a realistic goal for pay conditions.

But union leaders were also stressed pay would not be the only focus.

Hayes, one of the state’s most powerful union figures, had convinced Labor’s shadow health minister, Ryan Park, to commit to a special commission of inquiry to examine structural issues undermining the performance of the health system.

It followed a report commissioned by the HSU that found billions of dollars of waste in the health system, and Hayes said structural changes to the system would allow an improvement in conditions for health staff.

“As a union leader I’m saying I want to modernise and revolutionise the system,” he said.

On Sunday the chief executive of the Wesley Mission, Stu Cameron, urged Minns to take action on gambling harm, saying the election result “doesn’t change the need for urgent reform; it highlights it”.