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Train, bus drivers, teachers strike on same day: How did we get here?

·4-min read
(Source: AAP)
(Source: AAP)

NSW teachers, bus drivers and train drivers are striking on Tuesday, as 15,000 aged care workers also threaten industrial action.

The industrial action marks the first time the state’s teachers have gone on strike in a decade, with the NSW Teachers Federation pushing for improved conditions and wage growth beyond the 2.5 per cent public service wage cap.

Bus and train drivers are also striking amid concerns the NSW government will privatise train operations, as it has bus services.

Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said the government had offered teachers a 2.5 per cent increase, and she was “disappointed” the workforce were striking in the midst of discussions.

However, NSW Teachers Federation president Angelo Gavrielatos said the disruption associated with Tuesday’s industrial action would “pale into significance” when compared with a looming teacher shortage.

An Education Department report released earlier this year warned NSW public schools could run out of teachers within five years, and that another 11,000 teachers were required.

The union estimates more than 15,000 teachers met in Sydney today to demand action. 

At the same time, 15,000 aged care workers around the country are also considering strike action to push for higher wages and improved conditions.

“Workers are being pushed beyond breaking point by understaffing, impossible workloads and the emotional toll of not having enough time or support to provide the quality of care that residents require,” director of United Workers Union Sharron Caddie said on Tuesday.

“Aged care workers are also fed up with being ignored by their employers, who have consistently rejected their claims for a meaningful increase in wages and more care time.”

What’s going on?

(Source: Getty)
(Source: Getty)

The circumstances leading to each industrial action differ, but there are some broader themes at play, University of Sydney professor of labour law Shae McCrystal told Yahoo Finance.

“If you look at teachers … they’re subject to the wages cap, so their wages have been artificially suppressed by the state government,” she said.

“They haven’t been able to realistically negotiate wages because the government won’t negotiate above the wages cap. That’s very frustrating for that group of workers, particularly given the complaints they have around workloads and shortages.”

Teachers are pushing for wage rises up to 7.5 per cent a year.

The Rail, Tram and Bus Union NSW is also arguing for increased wages and security, following privatisation of some parts of the bus system.

However, Sydney Trains chief executive Matthew Longland also described the transport workers’ strikes as disappointing, noting that rail workers had been offered a 2.5 per cent increase, including superannuation.

McCrystal said the coinciding industrial actions reflect the “restraint” shown by frontline workers including teachers and transport workers over the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They have worked exceptionally hard over the last couple of years in extremely difficult circumstances, and they’re fed up,” McCrystal said.

“They don’t feel that’s been recognised or rewarded.”

More broadly, the latest national accounts figures reveal that total compensation to Australian workers was below 47 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) - a near record low.

In the revised June-quarter figures, wages as a percentage of GDP slipped to 46.14 per cent - officially the lowest share since the Australian Bureau of Statistics began recording GDP.

Right to strike

(Source: AAP)
(Source: AAP)

Industrial action is a fundamental human right under customary international law, McCrystal noted.

However, she believes Australia is not used to seeing a healthy industrial relations system in action.

While the teachers, train and bus drivers’ strikes are governed by state industrial relations law, postal workers, aged-care workers and stevedores fall under national law, she added.

And the national industrial relations system is based on an understanding that workers’ key tool to negotiate better conditions is to strike.

“You also need to reflect on this through a historical lens,” McCrystal said.

“Strike actions in Australia are as low as they have ever been. We’re not coming off the back of a system that has a healthy level of strike action, we’re coming off the back of a system with an extremely low level of strike action.”

It’s also difficult for public-facing workers like train drivers and teachers to strike, because they risk alienating potential supporters due to the inconvenience attached to the action, she added.

“[People] forget that the system is predicated on the assumption … that the credible threat of industrial action is the mechanism for workers to improve their lot.”

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