Now deliver on your promises, unions tell newly elected Labor

  • Published March 27, 2023

Sydney Morning Herald, 27 March 2023

Unions that backed Labor’s campaign for Macquarie Street are demanding the incoming Minns government begin negotiations for soon-to-expire awards from Monday, with one saying it expects a pay rise of at least one percentage point above the Coalition’s wage cap.

Ministers bound for portfolios such as treasury, education and health and who will be responsible for some of the state’s unhappiest frontline workers are due to be sworn in this week prior to the rest of the cabinet positions being confirmed.

As Chris Minns’ senior team called a snap meeting to determine priorities on Sunday, the main contender for the leadership of the Liberal Party, Matt Kean, pulled out of the race to spend more time with his family, leaving former ministers Alister Henskens and Mark Speakman as frontrunners.

The state’s unions, including unaffiliated ones, celebrated Labor’s win on the weekend after heavily backing the party’s campaign following years of frustration with the Coalition’s wage cap and what they saw as a hamstrung and biased Industrial Relations Commission.
Now they expect Minns to deliver. Public Service Association general secretary Stewart Little said his members were due for a pay rise from July 1, leaving just three months to negotiate a better deal than the 2.5 per cent, plus super, promised by the former Coalition government.

“We’ll be negotiating that as of Monday,” he said.

“We will be pushing for a fair wage rise. It would have to have at least a four in front of it. [The pay decision] should absolutely take into consideration what’s happened in the past three years. Every time there was a crisis, the community turned to the public sector.”

The NSW Teachers Federation, which campaigned heavily on teacher shortages, also expects the government to act quickly to deliver on its promises, which include reopening the award, renegotiating salaries and conditions, and reconstructing the Industrial Relations Commission.

“We will be seeking commencement of immediate negotiations as soon as the government is sworn in,” said president Angelo Gavrielatos. The teachers’ deal is not due to expire until the end of the year, but one of Labor’s commitments was to reopen the award.

The Health Services Union wants Minns to move on its promised royal commission into the structure and funding of NSW Health as an “absolute priority”. “[I] hope that would be happening with the first 100 days,” said secretary Gerard Hayes.

Removing the wage cap would involve changing the Industrial Relations Act, which needs the approval of parliament. Minns said on Sunday he did not yet know when parliament would sit; it would probably be May. The make-up of the upper house is also still unclear.

Minns said scrapping the 3 per cent wages cap for nurses, teachers and other state workers was an urgent priority. “We’ll sit down of course with essential workers as well as their representatives about the next stage forward,” he said.

In its policy costings, Labor said it would maintain the existing target of 3 per cent wage growth in 2023-24. The Parliamentary Budget Office found a 1 percentage point wage rise on the cap would increase government costs by $2.6 billion if corresponding savings and productivity enhancements aren’t found.

Scrapping the cap does not automatically mean wages will rise, but rather that there is no ceiling within which to negotiate.

The head of Unions NSW, Mark Morey, said the negotiations were not just about pay. Conditions such as the paperwork burden on teachers were also important, and “will do a lot to alleviate the pressure the workers are under, to give them a proper work-life balance,” he said.
Morey expected the government would address the issues in stages, such as by tackling mid-year awards first, then those that expire at the end of the year, and working in the meantime on plans for a new system, including a revamped IRC.

“They’ve been left with a lot of problems,” Morey said. “It’s not going to be fixed overnight, but as long as they keep moving on it, they’ll bring goodwill back to these systems.”

On Sunday afternoon, Minns convened a snap leadership meeting with his most senior MPs to discuss implementing policies.

Senior Labor sources speaking on the condition of anonymity said the meeting focused on the machinery and function of government, and how quickly the new team could begin work on executing election commitments, including scrapping the public sector wages cap.
The senior leadership group, which includes treasury spokesman Daniel Mookhey, environment spokeswoman Penny Sharpe, transport spokeswoman Jo Haylen and health spokesman Ryan Park, is due to be sworn in later this week.

Minns said he would wait until he knew the full results of Saturday’s election before finalising his cabinet.

One senior Labor source said Minns’ and Perrottet’s offices were working together on Sunday to ensure a smooth transition between the two leaders, with some minor concessions given to the departing team to ensure they had enough time to vacate their offices.

Minns said he held Perrottet in high regard, and said he was open to utilising him in government down the track.
The man considered most likely to replace Perrottet, Kean, pulled out of the race late on Sunday, fuelling speculation he is considering a tilt at federal politics. “I have a young family and I would love to spend a little more time with them. The election result will enable me to do that,” he said.