NSW unions ramp up industrial action in Minns’ first wages test

Australian Financial Review, 25 May 2023

NSW Premier Chris Minns faces his first industrial relations test as union bosses representing the state’s public sector workers plan industrial action across the state’s hospitals next week in a bid to press their case for a 6.5 per cent pay increase.

Just two months after taking office on an election pledge to lift public sector pay and scrap a public sector wage cap, Mr Minns is under increasing pressure from unions, which are growing impatient about how long it is taking to deliver on the promise.

Treasurer Daniel Mookhey and Industrial Relations Minister Sophie Cotsis told union bosses last week they would likely offer a pay increase of 4 per cent inclusive of a 0.5 per cent lift in superannuation. They said it could take until September to scrap the wage cap because they wanted to be able to legislate a new wages framework in its place.

But union bosses, who are yet to respond to the government, told The Australian Financial Review the offer is below what workers need. Some segments are pushing for a 6.5 per cent lift in pay, inclusive of super, and others are unlikely to accept anything below 4 per cent, exclusive of super.

“What the government is offering is actually inferior to what the former government was giving us ... whereas under [former premier Dominic] Perrottet we were getting 3 per cent inclusive of super plus an additional 0.5 per cent for productivity,” Health Services Union secretary Gerard Hayes told The Australian Financial Review.

“When inflation is hitting close to 7 per cent, for workers 3.5 per cent isn’t going to cover it for them. It just doesn’t add up.”

The government will meet with the unions later this week, but the meeting is unlikely to prevent the state’s Health Services Union members stop-work meetings and other actions in hospitals next Wednesday.

The state’s ambulance workers started a fresh round of action on Thursday by refusing patient transfers, in a move that came into effect at 6:45 am and will stay in place until June 1, as the union pushes for a pay rise and urgent action to scrap the pay cap.

“This action is an unfortunate but necessary response to a lack of commitment from the NSW government to address woefully low paramedic wages,” Australian Paramedics Association (NSW) president Chris Kastelan said.

“We have taken on dozens of new skills over recent years, and all we’ve received is successive real-term pay cuts.

“We need the government to deliver on their promise of 500 additional regional paramedic specialists. We need the government to deliver on its promise of a real wage increase. We need it to deliver on acting on the ramping crisis.”

Mr Hayes said segments of the public health sector that received a pay increase of just 0.3 per cent during the pandemic were doing it toughest, despite receiving a $3000 “thank you” payment last year from the government, in addition to the 3 per cent pay increase.

He said cost of living increases and inflation pressures coupled with stagnant wages had driven a boom in member engagement, but were also prompting some members to move back in with their parents and others were leaving the state to live in cheaper areas.

Mr Minns spoke about the challenge the state had retaining public sector workers throughout the campaign as he spruiked his policy to eliminate the wage cap, in favour of negotiations with sectors across the public service.

Other union representatives speaking on the condition of anonymity said they were unlikely to accept an offer below 4 per cent exclusive of super and said they would push for additional conditions, such as increased staffing levels and better rosters.

Mr Hayes said his workers wanted to be able to claim the full benefit of salary packaging, compared to a current framework in which workers can only claim half the full entitlement with the rest going to the government. He said it would hand the average health sector an extra $50 a week.

His union is the most vocal agitating for the pay increase given its agreement is the first to expire in June.