Multiple strikes bring Australia’s most populous State to a standstill

Thousands of teachers, bus drivers and railway workers protested against the “anti-worker approach” of the New South Wales government by holding parallel strikes in the State

December 09, 2021 by Peoples Dispatch
Labor strikes in Australia
School teachers held a massive rally in Sydney as part of a day-long strike across the State of New South Wales. (Photo: NSW Teachers Federation/Twitter)

Thousands of workers participated in strikes led by a coalition of teachers, train workers and bus drivers bringing the most populous Australian State of New South Wales to a standstill. On Tuesday, December 7, over 50,000 workers were estimated to have participated in strike actions called by teachers and transport unions in the State against the government’s “anti-worker approach” in contract negotiations.

The strike began with a walkout organized by 1,200 bus drivers in Sydney over an ongoing dispute regarding pay negotiations on Monday, December 6. Bus drivers later joined school teachers and rail workers across the State in their planned day-long strikes on Tuesday, continuing their walkout.

While teachers refused to hold classes on Tuesday, rail workers held a reduced services strike by refusing to operate foreign-made trains that account for close to 75% of the State’s train services. All striking workers were organized by unions affiliated to the Labor Council of New South Wales, also known as Unions NSW, which represents around 600,000 workers across the State.

This culminated in one of the biggest strike actions to ever hit New South Wales. The teachers’ strike on Tuesday was the first in over a decade. Public school teachers defied a November 29 order by the Industrial Relations Commission to call off the strike and held a massive rally in Sydney organized by the NSW Teachers Federation.

Unions have been trying to negotiate better contract terms and pay conditions but have accused the State government led by the center-right Liberal Party of stalling talks and pushing its widely criticized neoliberal policies. The Liberal Party is part of the conservative Liberal-National Coalition that heads the federal government under prime minister Scott Morrison.

“The bus drivers walking off the job today have spent the last year exposing themselves to COVID-19 to serve the public, as have rail workers and teachers,” said Mark Morey, secretary of Unions NSW, a day ahead of the strike. “Now as inflation runs rampant, they are being rewarded with a pay cut and increased workloads.”

What are the demands?

The government’s failure to negotiate better wages and working conditions has been a common complaint of the striking workers. The NSW Teachers Federation, which organized over 15,000 teachers for the strike, argued that teachers have been overworked and underpaid throughout the pandemic.

They argue that classroom teachers often have to work up to 55 hours a week to cover administrative and compliance workloads along with teaching, while close to 80% of the teachers have had to take classes outside of their expertise to make up for the shortage of teachers. According to the union, there are over 1,100 teaching vacancies across the State. NSW has the lowest teachers to students ratio of any State in Australia.

The key demands put forward by the teachers include an annual wage hike between 5% and 7.5% for the next contract agreement, a coherent plan to fill teaching vacancies across the State, urgent reduction of administrative and compliance workloads, and a two-hour per week release time for lesson planning and collaboration.

On the other hand, transport workers, represented by the Transport Workers Union NSW and Rail Tram and Bus Union NSW, are fighting to protect their wages and fight for better contracts while resisting the privatization of services. 

Bus drivers, for instance, have demanded that service providers negotiate new contracts with unions. Unions have also argued that because of privatization of several services in Sydney, bus drivers ended up losing several benefits. A two-tier wage system was also introduced which negatively affected government bus drivers.

Similarly, rail workers are protesting the proposed terms set out by Sydney Trains, which include bypassing workers’ consultation on changes to work safety and practices, reducing redundancy conditions and work casualization. Rail workers have been in negotiation with the management for over nine months with no results.

More strikes are expected to hit the State with another reduced services strike already announced by transport workers which will affect train and bus services on Friday, December 10, during afternoon peak hours.