As wages drop on the back of a two-decade high spike in inflation, a growing number of frontline workers across Australia are taking action, demanding increased pay to keep pace with the rising cost of living.
Teachers, healthcare workers and transport workers are among those downing tools, rallying in streets, or limiting their duties in various forms of industrial action.
The string of high-profile strikes across multiple sectors and states comes as Australians prepare to vote in a federal election, pondering issues such as cost-of-living pressures.
It is no coincidence that the wave of industrial action coincides with the May 21 poll, Adelaide University workplace relations expert Andrew Stewart says.
“It’s not at all irrational for those workers to be looking at industrial action right now,” he adds.
The war over people’s pay has become a determining factor in the election debate, with Labor leader Anthony Albanese saying he would support a 5.1 per cent wage increase in line with inflation, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison calling the promise “reckless”.
The coalition points to the Fair Work Commission as the arbitrator of minimum rates of pay. But much of the industrial pressure is on state and territory governments to lift public sector pay and conditions.
Hundreds of NSW state schools were forced to close last week when about 15,000 teachers walked off the job, demanding a pay rise of between five and 7.5 per cent and two hours of extra planning time.
The NSW Teachers’ Federation has also authorised members to walk off school grounds if a NSW government MP enters.
NSW nurses continue to campaign for pay rises and better patient ratios after striking in March. The state’s transport workers have joined others in their call for wage increases. Most state public sector workers have been pushing for a pay increase above the 2.5 per cent annual cap in place since 2011.
University lecturers, lab assistants and librarians also stopped work this week.
Last week, scores of prison workers in Darwin took industrial action over the NT government’s pay freeze and the alleged under-resourcing of the sector, with the union saying it was in crisis.
Earlier this week, aged care workers from six nationwide providers across 130 facilities walked off the job, saying they were left with no option but to strike for increased pay and staffing levels.
Prof Stewart says there are a few factors, including COVID-19, which have prompted the groundswell of action.
“It is a lot to do with the pent up frustration … with not having their workload concerns dealt with and a sense that they’re not being rewarded for their enormous efforts while Australia’s been struggling with the pandemic,” he said.
“In each case here we’re talking about workers who have been disproportionately effected – many of them forced to go to work when it’s not particularly safe, being forced to work in really strenuous conditions – just working in PPE (personal protection equipment) can be pretty tough.
“It’s not surprising that we’ve got a sense here that these are workers who, in some instances at least, have never been properly compensated.”
Australia’s annual inflation rate surged to 5.1 per cent in the March quarter, and in the next few weeks a crucial Fair Work Commission Annual Wage Review will determine the minimum wage.
If it doesn’t rise at pace with inflation it will translate to a real wage cut for many working Australians, including those on the education and health services frontline.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions says governments have left workers with no option.
“Striking is a last resort for workers. They do not take this decision lightly,” ACTU Secretary Sally McManus tells AAP.
“They are responding to employers who are insisting on cutting wages in real terms.
“Aged care workers, nurses, transport workers and teachers were the frontline of our pandemic, they shouldn’t have to take pay cuts in real terms.
“Workers are really suffering.”