Tasmania’s public sector pay stoush: where to in 2019?
The anger of Tasmania’s public sector unions was palpable in 2018 — mass rallies, paramedics furiously scrawling on ambulances, teachers leaving school early and nurses banning forced overtime.
- After being elected in 2014, the Hodgman Liberal Government committed to a cap on public sector wage increases to 2 per cent, put in place under the previous Labor government
- Unions representing Tasmania’s 29,000 public sector workers have long been arguing for a rise of at least 3 per cent — so far rejected by the Government
- Unions believe it would be difficult for the parties to agree on a third-party, “common ground” mediator to break the impasse
The Liberal Government didn’t flinch. A pay rise of 2 per cent a year was affordable and reasonable, according to Treasurer Peter Gutwein.
So after months of negotiations and an effective stalemate on pay, what are the options for unions and the State Government in 2019?
Premier Will Hodgman and Mr Gutwein are glued to their wages policy, a stance that has infuriated unions, which believe a fixed policy undermines the fundamental concept of negotiation.
As enterprise bargaining hobbles along and industrial action threatens to escalate, the Government might be able to count on public apathy towards departmental pen-pushers.
But fed-up nurses and paramedics dealing with an ever-ailing health system may yet garner sympathy.
The Health and Community Services Union (HACSU) wants at least an extra three per cent in pay a year for its members.
Nurses aren’t putting a number on their ideal pay rise but the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) will not accept two per cent.
Something’s got to give but Mr Gutwein has so aggressively pushed the ‘2 per cent’ line that it’s difficult to see where the Government can go from here.
No-one’s talking about arbitration … yet
Options to address the pay issue impasse would likely require unions making the first move and most courses of action would have to involve the Tasmanian Industrial Commission (TIC).
There could be conciliation or the TIC could be asked to act as a private arbitrator or there could be formal arbitration through the TIC.
The Government isn’t entertaining hypotheses about those options.
“There is currently active negotiation between the Government’s negotiating team and union representatives,” a spokesman said.
“It is hoped that unions show up to the scheduled negotiation meetings having genuinely consulted with members and, if they are not accepting the Government’s offer, present a formal counter-offer to discuss.”
HACSU state secretary Tim Jacobson, who represents allied health professionals, paramedics and some hospital workers, said arbitration wasn’t on the cards.
“We’re not considering that in any way at this point,” he said.
“We’re obviously intent on getting the best possible deal with our members without delay. The problem with arbitration is that it can go on for many, many months.”
Unions are split on arbitration — the ANMF’s Emily Shepherd hasn’t ruled it out.
“Depending on the outcome of Thursday’s negotiation meeting, all avenues will be pursued to progress this campaign,” Ms Shepherd said.
‘Common ground’ mediator could be difficult
Another option would be for unions and the Government to find a third-party to mediate.
That happened in 2013, when Paul Lennon was appointed to break a pay dispute impasse between the Government and Metro bus drivers.
But that was unions negotiating with a Labor/Green government, and it would be more difficult for a Liberal government and public sector unions to settle on a “common ground” mediator.
Mr Jacobson said the union would prefer to negotiate with the Premier or Treasurer, rather than a third party.
“We’d find it hard to imagine how we could get a mediator involved in these current negotiations given that the people who are really making the decision aren’t sitting in the room,” he said.
More strikes on the way in 2019
Unions and the Government have meetings scheduled throughout the month but, perhaps with the exception of the nurses (who’ve been in negotiations the longest), none seem hopeful of an “acceptable” offer soon.
Treasurer Peter Gutwein has been aggressively pushing the 2 per cent cap. (ABC News: Jack Evans)
They argue that the Government’s wages policy has left state service negotiators with no room to move.
The most tried and tested union play looks set to resurface: after stop-work action during the second half of 2018, unions are warning there could be more protests and strikes to come.
“Absolutely. Our members have been taking industrial action right over the Christmas/New Year period,” Mr Jacobson said.
“We are meeting with them over the coming weeks to reset … and obviously we’ll be back onto the industrial action again.
“The longer this rolls on, the more difficult it is to actually protect the community from any unsavoury elements associated with industrial action.”
Nurses may look at ramping up their campaign.
“If a positive outcome and an improved offer isn’t received on Thursday, we will be seeking instruction from our members across the state as to how to progress from here, and that will include options for escalation of industrial action,” Ms Shepherd said.
Despite the public sector wage dispute being a state issue, rolling strike action and public protests would not be welcomed by the Tasmanian Liberals in the lead-up to this year’s federal election.
But neither the State Government nor the unions are citing polling day as a factor in how quickly negotiations might wrap up, or how long they might drag on.
“The Government have got some issues coming up. The federal election is one of them, not that that has anything to do with our campaign,” Mr Jacobson said.
Government ministers have previously criticised strike action and they’ve avoided any talk of a stalemate.
“The Government remains committed to good faith negotiations and will be meeting with all relevant unions, as scheduled prior to Christmas, this month,” a spokesman said.
“Formal offers with pay rises and improved employment conditions have been made to all unions and we look forward to their response.”