Thursday, September 8, 2011

Public Sector Rally in Sydney

Today in Sydney, around 30,000 public sector workers and their supporters gathered in the Domain and marched on Parliament in protest against public sector job cuts and pay cuts.

School teachers across the city and the State went on strike for the day, and industrial action was also taken by significant numbers of nurses, fire-fighters, police, and ferry staff.

Rally at the Domain, Sydney ... a decent turn-out for a drizzly day!
As in other parts of the world, here in New South Wales we are beginning to see (the return of?) a more punitive phase of neoliberalism. This has involved a simultaneous attack on the both the levels of state expenditure and the working conditions and unions of public sector workers.

Last month, the newly-elected conservative Government passed legislation giving itself the power to cap public sector wages growth to no more than 2.5% per year without productivity offsets. With inflation running at around 3.6%, that is a significant pay cut.

Earlier this week, the Government announced there would be 5000 jobs cut from the public sector. This was accompanied by the usual weasel words about the bulk of these jobs being 'back room' jobs which will disappear painlessly through natural attrition and voluntary redundancies. But of course, this is rubbish -- there will be forced redundancies, and the workloads of staff left behind will inevitably rise. And given that many workers in Australia are already feeling the harmful consequences of the 'productivity squeeze' in their everyday lives, this is no small matter.

Gotta love a rally involving fire-fighters ... look at all those trucks! My son was impressed with this pic...!

I'm not the first person to point out that such cuts to state spending on public services stand in stark contrast to the generous taxpayer-funded bail-outs and guarantees provided to the private sector during the GFC.

While some other Australian states have been relatively sheltered from the fall-out of the GFC thanks to income derived from the on-going mining boom, the NSW economy was more seriously exposed, due to its dependence on property prices, tourism, retail, and globally-oriented service industries for revenue.

Predictably, the Government would prefer to blame its budgetary problems on a public sector wages blow-out, which it says was allowed to occur by a rotten Labor Government. While the Labor Government sure was rotten, so too is the claim that public sector workers in New South Wales are overpaid -- as demonstrated by this bit of research conducted by the Sydney Uni Workplace Relations Centre earlier this year.

Anyways, it felt good to be in a big and rowdy crowd today. Surprisingly enough (for me at least), the best speech of the day was given by a representative of the Police Association. In an effort to head-off concern about its public sector wages policy, the Government exempted police from the new arrangement. But the Police Association aren't having it, and were well-represented today. And in her speech, the PA rep argued that even if police were exempt from the pay cuts, they were not immune from public sector cuts more generally. She went on the list the ways in which a range of of social issues -- like domestic violence, mental health, and school truancy -- end up becoming police issues when there aren't social services, teachers and nurses to deal with them appropriate. In my frequent rages against the ways that police often do intervene in these kinds of issues, it's easy to forget that the police staff themselves have their own critique of criminalisation. (And the fact that police were involved in the rally meant that the policing of the rally was pretty low key compared to other large protests in Sydney recently! It also meant that for once, union and police estimates of the crowd were actually the same!)

But as ever, it's hard not to leave a rally asking: what's next? Given the legal difficulties of taking conventional industrial action these days, I think there's a lot of work to be done to figure out how public sector workers can make their presence felt politically. I wonder if there are ways that we can work, as well as refuse to work, in ways that demonstrate the significance of public services by cooperating with 'the public' while not cooperating with the state? For example, years ago Jack Mundey asked whether bus drivers would have more political impact if they drove buses and refused to collect fares, rather than going on strike? What are the equivalent opportunities today across the public sector?

Meanwhile, one issue to keep an eye on over the next few days will be the immediate ramifications of the old-fashioned industrial action that was taken today. The NSW Teachers' Federation strike was declared illegal by the Industrial Relations Commission, after an application by the Government (yes, the same Government that has just denied public sector unions access to the Industrial Relations Commission for the purposes of settling wage disputes!) Today, the Government talked tough about imposing at $20,000 fine on the Teachers' Fed. And the Fed vowed it would fight any such action. I think/hope that any attempt to impose this fine will generate a lot of heat. Clarrie O'Shea revisited? Probably not! But ...

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