The newly elected Minns government in New South Wales is staring down widespread Health Services Union industrial action across key public sector agencies less than three months after being elected, as unions flex their muscle to collect on pay rises promised to them during the election campaign.
In a jarring look for a minority government elected on the back of conspicuous, strong and persistent union support in the form of rallies and targeted actions against the former government, the powerful Health Services Union (HSU) has hit its government employer with work bans starting Thursday.
Patient transport officers and paramedics will impose a joint 24-hour ban on transporting discharged patients from hospital to home or a residential aged care facility, the HSU said, citing frustration with “flatlining wages and the surging cost of living”.
Minns has vowed to ‘scrap the cap’ on public sector wages as a major plank of his campaign but the government is yet to articulate what pay increases will look like.
Ratings agency Standard& Poor’s has already flagged that the NSW public sector wage book is on its watch list after the election of the Minns government, with infrastructure projects like the Sydney Metro under the microscope to potentially pay for public service wage rises.
However, the HSU is fed-up with waiting and has publicly warned Minns the government will lose key staff to other states unless they stump up the cash.
“The NSW Government had the option to remove the wages cap by changing the ministerial regulation the day after the election. It chose not to. And every day since we have wondered when we will see action.” said HSU NSW state secretary and former paramedic Gerard Hayes.
“Our union has offered to participate in wide-ranging reforms to make hospitals run more smoothly and efficiently, alongside professionalised pay that recognises upgraded skills and value. We are yet to see meaningful progress on either of these fronts. We can not ignore the cost of living crisis. It is unfolding in real-time with devastating consequences.”
While the HSU has exclusions from the bans in place for end-of-life patients and people on dialysis, there is a clear message rank and file public sector workers won’t be fobbed off with excuses in lieu of cash in the event the Labor’s election promises prove expensive to keep.
The industrial action also sends a strong factional message inside NSW Labor that promises to unions need to be kept now the candidates backed by trades hall are in the role of employers.
Federally, the HSU helped extract the recent whopping 15% pay rise for aged care staff in an industry that saw wages become so depressed that many providers are now on the brink of financial collapse because they cannot get staff.
The NSW Teachers Federation (NSWTF) is also pushing for wage rises, saying late last month that “unsustainable workloads and uncompetitive salaries” were key reasons for there being “2,172 permanent teaching positions … vacant in NSW public schools.”
“We face a classroom crisis in NSW,” said NSWTF president Angelo Gavrielatos.
“Thousands of teaching positions are vacant, the number of teachers resigning has doubled in two years and the number of people studying to become a teacher has dropped by 30 per cent. Teacher shortages mean kids miss out and teachers burn out.”
“We can’t fix the shortages problem without fixing the wages and workload problem. We commend Labor for their commitment to lift wages and reduce the administration workloads of teachers and we want to sit down and begin intensive negotiations,” Gavrielatos said late last month.
One fallback Minns may have in tempering union expectations is the looming Victorian Budget that many expect to mete out a heavy pruning to public sector numbers to try and rebalance the books, with as many as 10% or 5,000 jobs at stake according to recent reports.