The Health Services Union has threatened more strikes and a multimillion-dollar campaign against the NSW government before next year’s state election as thousands of health workers kicked off work stoppages on Thursday.
The paramedics, cleaners, security guards and radiographers, who make up almost half of the public sector’s 140,000 health workforce, took up to four-hour stoppages across the state’s metro and regional hospitals in support of a 5.5 per cent pay increase to make up for real wage cuts.
The stoppages are part of what unions have branded “a year of reckoning” over pay, with mass strikes occurring almost every week across the NSW public sector to protest against staff shortages and a state wage cap of 2.5 per cent a year.
The HSU NSW secretary, Gerard Hayes, told a packed and angry crowd of workers at Sydney’s Trades Hall that “anything below 5.5 [per cent] and you’re taking a big hit, and we’re not going to accept that”.
“We might be heroes but we’re not chumps."
He said the union had spent 10 years building capacity for the fight and would be targeting the Perrottet government before the budget, which is expected in May or June, and individual MPs before the state election in March 2023.
“The union’s got plenty of cash. We can drop $2 million on this campaign and not blink an eye now. We’ve got more organisers than we’ve ever had before … we’ve gone from 20,000 members to 40,000 members.”
‘The cost of living is skyrocketing’
On March 31, about 7000 nurses took their second statewide strike in two months and on Monday, bus drivers for private transport operators contracted by the state will walk off the job. Rail workers and public school teachers have also been taking industrial action over the past few months.
Premier Dominic Perrottet defended the wage cap on Tuesday, telling reporters that NSW and Queensland were the only states with a wage cap as high as 2.5 per cent.
“The NSW government has led the way when it comes to wage increases across the country and this has been lost in the debate,” he said.
“A 2.5 per cent pay increase annually over this period of time has far exceeded private sector wage growth. That’s a fact.”
The average pay rise in the private sector by June last year was 1.9 per cent. The HSU got a pay rise of 0.3 per cent in 2020 and 2.5 per cent in 2021, which included the legislated 0.5 per cent increase in superannuation.
The union also wants to rewrite awards, which it says have not significantly changed in 40 years, so that pay recognises workers’ current skills.
NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said he wanted health workers to be treated “respectfully and reasonably” and was meeting unions “in good faith”.
“The extraordinary job they do and particularly during COVID emphasises the need to achieve fair and balanced outcomes on wages and conditions,” he said.
“The HSU and the Nurses and Midwives Association have substantive arguments which the government is trying to address and balance against the state budget needs.”
At the health workers’ stop-work meeting, furious union members told stories of struggling to pay for bills and their mortgages while putting their lives at risk during the pandemic. Others spoke about working more with fewer staff and not going home on time.
Andrew Teece, chief radiographer at Nepean Hospital, said “the government knows the cost of living is skyrocketing”.
“This government bluntly refuses a pay increase … to meet our household bill.”
He said the union would need to “take further action in various forms” and the campaign would take “time, energy and sacrifice”.
Radiographer and union delegate Trisha Hann said that “we either stick around and continue to burn out and suffer and learn to hate our jobs, or we leave and give up something that we thought was a real vocation”.