Health workers ramp up strike action at state’s busiest hospital over wages

Sydney Morning Herald, 29 May 2023

Hundreds of health workers, including paramedics, will walk off the job at the state’s busiest hospital this week, with a union boss warning that employees are at breaking point as cost-of-living pressures worsen.

Workers will take industrial action at Westmead Hospital on Wednesday, with stop-work meetings to be held across the state as Health Services Union (HSU) boss Gerard Hayes said frustrations were close to boiling point over stagnating wages.

The escalation of industrial action from the most vocal union will put pressure on the state government to land an interim offer for the state’s public sector workers, with about 70 agreements due to expire on July 1, affecting about 200,000 employees.

Union bosses have had one formal meeting with Treasurer Daniel Mookhey and Industrial Relations Minister Sophie Cotsis, where a one-year 4 per cent pay increase was floated as a stop-gap measure while the government develops a new industrial policy.
The one-year offer would be the largest since the wage cap was introduced by former premier Barry O’Farrell in 2011, and would form an interim deal as the government wrangles with the complex task of replacing the controversial public sector wages cap that restricts wage rises to 3 per cent.

Hayes said workers were “at breaking point” as cost-of-living pressures worsen.

The Labor Party heavyweight said the union surveyed 3000 members last week, with 95 per cent of respondents saying they would not accept a 4 per cent pay offer, while 85 per cent also backed further widespread industrial action.

Paramedics and patient transport officers took statewide action on May 18 and refused to take anyone discharged from hospital to their home or to a residential aged-care facility. However, Wednesday’s action will include a broader base of members, including cleaners.

The HSU is seeking a 6 per cent pay rise for its 47,000 members, as well as a 0.5 per cent superannuation bump, when the union’s current agreement expires on July 1.

Hayes said there had been “little clarity” from the government in terms of its provisional offer, such as whether it was inclusive of superannuation, but there was a view within his membership that 4 per cent would not go close to improving the impact of rising living costs.

“I have had workers tell me they want to be in our union but can’t afford the $11 a week, that’s how hard people are finding it, especially someone like a cleaner who is on $50,000,” Hayes said.

Mookhey’s office was contacted for comment.

The worsening tension between the HSU and the government was sparked by Labor’s decision to prioritise a change to the NSW Constitution that will ensure Sydney Water cannot be privatised.

Hayes said it was unnecessary to prioritise legislation to “stop something that wasn’t going to happen anyway”, but that legislation has been delayed pending amendments from the Nationals, who also want Water NSW – which manages the state’s dams – to be included.

In a letter to Premier Chris Minns outlining his members’ pay demands, Hayes said health workers had been “intimately involved in supporting the community over the last decade and in that time wages have fallen behind significantly with respect to other states”.

“The pandemic has also provided workforce challenges due to additional health policy and procedures, increases in resignation, limited foreign workers and health workers relocating to other states,” he wrote.