‘They will freak’: Health union prepares for next big fight with Labor

Sydney Morning Herald, 5 February 2024

The combative Health Services Union boss Gerard Hayes has signalled that the industrial tensions which plagued the Minns government during its first year in office are set to resume in 2024, telling his members they should be prepared for a prolonged fight which may include strike action if they are to win the sort of salary increases other public sector workforces benefited from last year.

The Herald was last week granted access to portions of an internal meeting of HSU delegates as they prepare for the resumption of industrial bargaining later this year.

In a speech to members at NSW Trades Hall in Sussex Street, Hayes said that the successful campaign run by the state’s paramedics last year, which ended in an agreement which will see an average pay increase of 25.5 per cent for ambulance officers, had proven the HSU “had the power” in negotiations.

But, he said, the fight would “come at a cost”, suggesting that governments relied on the unwillingness of health workers to take significant industrial action during pay disputes and that paramedics “had to go to the wall to get what they wanted” by threatening wide-scale industrial action which could have crippled the state’s emergency triple-0 service.

“I don’t want to kill people. I don’t want to put people in harm’s way,” Hayes said. “But I don’t want the rest of you living on your knees because you’re not respected.”

Formal strike action by health workers is rare in NSW, but during interviews with HSU delegates at the meeting it was clear many see the upcoming bargaining period as pivotal to address what they see as a legacy of suppressed wages as a result of the former Coalition government’s controversial wages cap.

Many reported an exodus of staff to Queensland, which has begun offering financial incentives for workers from interstate. This has hampered morale and affected the health system’s overall capacity in NSW.

The government faces a series of looming negotiations with unions including the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association and the Public Service Association. That the HSU is also gearing up for another fight will not surprise, after Hayes’ combative approach became a major bugbear for the government in 2023.

It was Hayes, and not the NSW opposition, which caused Minns the most angst during Labor’s first year in power. When most senior union leaders were complimentary of the government during its first months, Hayes quickly became a vocal critic of the speed at which Labor moved to abolish the wages cap.

He then infuriated the government through his involvement in a campaign where paramedics threatened to withhold their professional accreditation during pay negotiations. Health Minister Ryan Park warned the action would lead to the collapse of the state’s triple-0 service on New Year’s Eve, and the dispute found its way to the Industrial Relations Commission before the government eventually agreed to the pay deal.

But that feud may turn out only to have been an entree. Hayes is now preparing for the next round of industrial bargaining, which will cover the rest of the HSU’s allied health membership.

The allied health sector is made up of professionals such as pathologists, radiotherapists and physiotherapists. It is due to negotiate its next agreement from July, and Hayes said that the threat of industrial action would be just as powerful.

“Can you imagine what will happen if [strike action means] there won’t be any medical imaging tomorrow … or there won’t be any physiotherapy? They will freak,” Hayes said.

Hayes makes no apologies for his confrontational style, seeing it as the only way to force significant concessions.

“When you got your foot on their throat you don’t take it off, irrespective of who they are,” he said.

Hayes has pushed strongly for award reform which he says will make it easier for the government to increase pay rates by removing outdated award elements. He also lobbied for the ongoing Special Commission of Inquiry into the health system believing it will give the government the opportunity to find savings in the system to allow for substantial wage increases.

“It will be a shame on the government if we have to get to a point where we’re saying, we’re withdrawing services here or there,” he said during his address to HSU members.

“That’s on them. We’ve given them the best part of six months’ notice of their commitment to us. I’m not asking for anything more than they promised you.”

A spokesperson for Health Minister Ryan Park said: “The NSW Government has removed the wages cap and is reforming the industrial relations system so we can negotiate with workers to reform awards and ensure our essential workers receive fair pay increases.”