Workers show how to WIN secure work and end flat wages

Share with your friends


As the COVID-19 pandemic grinds on, frontline workers are exhausted and burnt out. For those working in both the public and private sectors, the thanks they receive is flat wages, crazy work pressure and chronic understaffing. With discontent on the rise, some seek individual solutions, hoping for a reprieve in a job change — but the problems are everywhere. Workers are in short supply, but many job openings are insecure positions.

In New South Wales, despite a massive shortage of paramedics in the ambulance service, graduates are moving elsewhere to seek jobs, as most positions offered in the state are casual. Rostered shifts are 12 hours and 15 minutes, and overworked paramedics forced to ramp patients at struggling emergency departments are paid penalties in lieu of missed breaks!

A powerful message from members of the Transport Workers Union who walked off the job at FedEx. Photo courtesy of TWU.

Dare to struggle, dare to win! A bit of digging shows green shoots of collective resistance sprouting, although these aren’t making the headlines. Last December, workers walked out of two major hospitals in Adelaide, demanding action from the state government to address staffing shortages and pressure to cut corners and bend safety rules. Performing key roles such as equipment sterilisation and patient support, as well as cleaning and catering, workers are fed up with double shifts and unfilled spots on the roster. 

Workers in the transport industry collectively tackled job insecurity by staring down bosses’ lockouts and striking to demand equal pay and conditions for labour hire workers. Transport Workers Union members walked out at a range of companies including Star Track (which is owned by Australia Post), Linfox, and FedEx, leaving a mountain of parcels undelivered until their demands were met.

Workers at the Geelong Library, members of the Australian Services Union, had a win after a tenacious campaign, including several work stoppages. Paid 20% less than librarians in Melbourne, they saw their struggle as part of an ongoing battle for equal pay. Actions, such as appealing to library users with announcements over the library public address system, won widespread community support for their rallies and strike fund. 

Members of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union also showed that when workers stand strong and use their power, they can win. Unionists at the global packaging giant GPI in Melbourne were outraged by the company’s puny 45 cents per hour offer. They walked out for a month to win a pay offer totalling 8%, back pay and an agreement that the company recognise the Indigenous custodians of the land! Workers at McCain had a win, too. They secured 3.8% in the first year, similar for each of the next two years, paid domestic violence leave and double pay for all overtime. 

The United Workers Union knows the importance of being battle-ready. Private pathology workers in Queensland struck for safer workplaces and better pay. At Statewide Independent Wholesalers in Tasmania, a workforce unified and ready to strike won 8.5%. The Country Road Group workers downed tools for 12 days and won 13.3% across the life of the agreement, including backpay. They secured 20 new permanent positions, improvements for casuals and enhanced union recognition. On the eve of strike action across five Victorian sites, regional dairy workers won solid pay outcomes and improved conditions, including 10 days’ paid leave for emergency service volunteer duties and a commitment to environmental sustainability. Members at General Mills, where the CEO earns $24 million a year, struck in June and won double the management’s pay offer with no loss of conditions. At Tip Top, the bread makers were ready to walk off at all three sites when management agreed to their log of claims in full. Workers at McCormick started this wave of action. Last April, after almost six weeks on strike, they retained all the conditions management had sought to strip away, won 9% across three years and a $5,000 sign-on bonus.

Smash public sector pay caps. Governments, both federal and state, have policies in place to suppress wages — they are succeeding, with pay rises well below the private sector for the September 2021 quarter. The Morrison Coalition government has capped federal public service pay rises to the Wage Price Index at a time when wage growth is stagnant. Since 2013, wage growth has been slower than at any time in the past 80 years! With pay rises well below increases in the cost of living, workers’ living standards are plummeting. 

In NSW, which has a Coalition government, the maximum allowed is 2.5%. Mental health nurses took strike action when they were offered an insulting 1.04% per annum pay offer. They also demanded improved staffing ratios and COVID safety measures. Train and bus drivers walked off over pay and conditions. Railway workers also want improved safety standards and an end to privatisation. Bus drivers are opposing a two-tier wage system. 

Last December, teachers closed 400 schools across NSW when they walked off the job for the first time in a decade. Low pay and heavy workloads are contributing to chronic staffing shortages, with more than 3,000 positions currently unfilled. Teachers are demanding a 7.5% annual increase to bring pay rates up to those of workers with similar levels of education, skills and responsibility. Further actions, well-supported, will be needed to win an acceptable pay offer from the NSW government led by arch conservative, Dominic Perrottet. 

With a federal election due by May, union officials focus the hopes of members on a change of government. All activity is funnelled into campaigning to elect the Australian Labor Party (ALP). Seeing the end of the Morrison government would be welcomed by working people fed up with a pro-business agenda, rorts, climate inaction and grand announcements with no follow through. But the timid ALP — which waved through the Liberals’ tax cuts for the rich and saddled unionists with the anti-worker Fair Work Act — will also have to be fought if it wins government. 

In Victoria, the Andrews Labor government limits wages for public sector workers to a miserable 1.5% per annum over the life of agreements. In NSW, the ALP opposition says it would not meet striking teachers demands if it was in government.

Time for workers to fight back! Whichever party wins the upcoming election, the way for workers to win is through rebuilding a fighting union movement, organising in their own class interests! Relying on militancy rather than funny memes is how to bust through wage suppression. This was shown by the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union members at the Better Read Than Dead bookstore in Sydney. They won over-award pay and conditions through the first strike action in retail in over 50 years. Last November, they took further industrial action to prevent the boss reneging on part of the deal. Well-organised workplaces with unionists — both permanent and casuals — willing to strike and to support the demands of the least secure, made real gains in 2021 and showed the way. These unionists extracted concessions despite the repressive industrial relations regime expressly designed to keep workers muzzled and wages low. Imagine if the union movement built industrial power to challenge this legislative framework, unleashing the power to win! 

In some parts of the world, militancy on a wider scale is on the rise. A strike wave is rolling across the United States. The pandemic, a tight labour market, and supply chain issues have given workers new leverage. Last October was renamed Striketober! This is what is needed here to win improved job security, an end to flat wages and the repeal of the misnamed Fair Work Act, which is anything but! Let’s get organising!

Thorne is a workplace delegate with the Community and Public Sector Union, who is involved with the CPSU Cross Agency Activist Network. Contact her at

Share with your friends