Western Australian blanket public sector wage policy dismantled, individual union negotiations reinstated

Western Australian blanket public sector wage policy dismantled, individual union negotiations reinstated
  • PublishedDecember 18, 2023

In recent years the government has negotiated conditions and bonuses with individual unions, but locked in a set pay rise for more than 140,000 public sector staff.

Premier Roger Cook said moving away from all public sector workers being offered the same pay rise would deliver greater flexibility in the bargaining process, to ensure unions can have industrial issues affecting their members better addressed.

“Today’s outcome is for affordable, sustainable and fair rewards for WA public sector workers,” he said.

Next year will see many public sector unions renegotiate their pay and conditions agreements with the government, which hopes the process will go more smoothly than the last round.

That period saw then-premier Mark McGowan draw the ire of unions by offering pay rises which unions saw as inadequate, especially given the efforts of their members during the pandemic.

A large gathering of people protesting outside parliament house.
Public sector workers rallied outside Parliament House for better pay last August.(ABC News: Keane Bourke)

It took two revisions of the offer for most unions to sign on, with almost all eventually accepting an increase of either $60 per week or a three per cent pay rise, plus a $3,000 sign-on bonus.

The state’s nurses are still yet to sign on to that agreement, with negotiations ongoing under the older policy and unaffected by today’s announcement.

$2.8 billion bargaining chip

The government has now put an extra $2.8 billion on the table, on top of its existing budget, to pay for additional pay rises and improved conditions negotiated by unions.

Treasurer Rita Saffioti said that figure was set to achieve an “affordable outcome” that rewarded public sector workers without setting an average pay rise figure.

“We will not be highlighting any particular numbers because unlike in past situations, we want to have really strong negotiations and allow the unions and the workforce to have negotiations with the government looking at both wages and other conditions,” she said.

Industrial Relations Minister Simone McGurk said finding ways of attracting people to regional areas, and keeping them there, would be a key part of negotiations, as well as increasing “direct and permanent” employment in the public sector.

Asked whether the plans could see unions fighting each other for a bigger pay rise, the minister said she wanted all areas of the public sector — including frontline and behind-the-scenes workers — to feel valued.

A woman wearing a blazer speaks at a lectern.
Simone McGurk says the government does not want to pitch public sector workers against one another.( ABC News: James Carmody )

“We will work very hard to make sure that there is a fair application of this wages policy. We don’t want to pitch public sector worker against public sector worker,” Ms McGurk said.

Push for 12 per cent increase

The move away from a uniform policy has been welcomed by unions, including those represented by UnionsWA – an alliance of more than 30 unions.

Secretary Owen Whittle backed the shift alongside leaders of other unions — the CPSU/CSA, which represents 44,000 public sector workers across a range of industries, the Health Services Union and the Rail, Tram and Bus Union.

“It’s now imperative that the WA government come to the table and negotiate with unions genuinely for real wages growth that will attract and retain workers to deliver the services that we need for the future,” CPSU/CSA secretary Rikki Hendon said.

A woman with red hair and an orange shirt looks away off camera.
Rikki Hendon wants public sector wages growth of 7 per cent and 5 per cent over the next two years.( ABC News: James Carmody )

The increase unions are targeting is 12 per cent over two years – seven in the first and five in the second – which they say catches members’ pay up after rapidly rising inflation sent real wages backwards.

“A seven and a five per cent [increase] catches workers up and only gives a slight increase to their real wages across the next two years,” Mr Whittle said.

“I think it’s an extremely reasonable claim for unions, especially when public sector workers have borne the brunt of the government’s budget repair measures.”

Teachers want money for retention

Mr Whittle said while the government had budgeted $2.8 billion for negotiations, unions would fight “tooth and nail … regardless of the number that they put in the budget paper”.

A man wearing a shirt and jacket speaks at a press conference
Owen Whittle says a 12 per cent increase over the next two years is an “extremely reasonable” amount.( ABC News: James Carmody )

He knocked back suggestions the government could pit unions against one another, saying aligned unions would build off the wins of individual unions to try and get similar results across the board.

The State School Teachers Union – which is also part of the alliance – said the government had a “significant” budget surplus to “demonstrate its commitment to fixing the public education in this state”.

“We believe a decent salary offer from the government will help stem the flow of teachers leaving the profession and entice quality candidates to join the public education system for the benefit of all students,” President Matt Jarman said in a statement.

Shadow Treasurer Steve Thomas accused the government of handing control of the state’s wages policy to the unions, describing it as the first election commitment of the 2025 campaign.

A man with short grey hair speaking at a press conference
Steve Thomas says the government has been “embarrassed into action” on their wages policy.(ABC News: Keane Bourke)

“The McGowan and Cook governments have had the capacity to pay higher wages, but they’ve kept a very tight policy to date,” he said.

“Roger Cook’s about to throw that out the window because he’s got an election coming up in just over a year’s time.

“It will now be open slather.

“Every union will be able to put pressure on this government and it’ll be a contest to see who can get the biggest rises based on the amount of political pressure each union can put forward.”

SOURCE: ABCNEWS

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