Honeymoon over for Minns as health workers threaten to strike over pay

Sydney Morning Herald, 5 July 2023

Health workers across NSW are threatening to strike unless the state government agrees to increase its pay offer to public servants, in a significant escalation of the feud between Labor Premier Chris Minns and firebrand Health Services Union boss Gerard Hayes.

A day after Treasurer Daniel Mookhey was heckled over wages at an HSU conference, delegates from the union have set up a showdown with the government by voting to endorse “escalating industrial action” across the state unless they receive a better pay offer by Friday.

A statement from the HSU on Tuesday raised the possibility of strike action by its members from as early as next Monday, as well as a resumption of the stop-work orders that resulted in paramedics walking off the job in May.

The mooted action would be the most significant since Labor was elected to government in March on a platform of lifting public sector pay.

Labor has offered public sector unions including the HSU a one-year, 4 per cent pay rise plus 0.5 per cent superannuation, which it points out is the largest single increase in NSW in a decade after the introduction of the controversial wages cap by the previous government. It wants a short-term deal before formally abolishing the cap and replacing it with a new industrial bargaining framework in September.

The government has been criticised by the Coalition over the size of the deal – it will cost taxpayers $618 million dollars. However, the HSU has pushed back against the offer because, it argues, it will not address severe cost-of-living pressures faced by its members, which include paramedics, hospital cleaners and security staff.

It is seeking a 6.5 per cent bump inclusive of super, or a flat-rate increase which would result in the lowest-paid workers receiving a proportionally higher jump in pay.

Hayes said HSU delegates had voted to give the government until Friday to improve the offer, or the union would push ahead with further industrial action.

“The delegates have had their say and decided that a 4 per cent pay increase does not add up when the cost of everyday essentials such as food and rent are soaring well beyond that,” he said.

“Our members, including hospital cleaners, wards people, therapists and security officers, put their lives on the line to keep the community safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. They deserve more than a real-terms pay cut.

“We are prepared to negotiate, but the government needs to put an offer on the table for our members to consider.”

The deteriorating relationship between Labor and the HSU has become one of the major issues for a government that campaigned on a promise to end some of the industrial chaos that plagued the Coalition during its final year in power by boosting public-sector pay.

While most major union leaders have been supportive of the government’s bid to scrap the cap, Hayes has proven to be a thorn in Minns’ side. The HSU boss has been a vocal critic of the pace of wage reform since the election, and on Monday Mookhey was heckled by delegates as he pleaded for patience with the government as it marked 100 days in office.

Health Minister Ryan Park said on Tuesday that while discussions were continuing, the union knew what the government’s offer was.

“Certainly, in discussions that the treasurer and I’ve had with them, they know that that is our band at the moment in terms of their allocation,” he said.

“I think we can get to a landing … We’ve been elected for just over 100 days. We’re continuing to work through it. White flag’s not going up. We’ll continue to engage, we’ll continue to focus on their issues, but we’ve got to deliver it in a way that’s sustainable financially.”

The HSU is particularly focused on an overhaul of the government’s salary packaging scheme for health workers. Currently, health workers in NSW can only claim half the full entitlement of the salary packaging tax savings, while the rest goes to the government.

Before the election Minns committed to workers receiving “100 per cent of the salary packaging benefit”, but on Monday Mookhey said that change would be staggered over a number of years.

Park said he agreed with the union that the arrangement was unfair, saying governments “have been using this for a long period of time to top up the budget.

“There’s no two ways about it. We need to start to move towards a system that’s fairer for working men and women … that’s my focus, but I have to do it with the challenges I’ve faced and the challenges the treasurer faces in terms of the fiscal arrangements.”