Nurses in the NSW Public Health System have just won very good improvements in pay and conditions but vicious attacks on public sector workers elsewhere warn us that we can never be complacent.
There should be no doubt about where responsibility for the Global Financial Crisis lies. Corporate greed, poor regulation of the global financial system and the irresponsible behaviour of banks brought the world economy to the brink of catastrophe.
There was always going to be a lag period between the financial meltdown and its social consequences but they are now beginning to manifest themselves in the United States and Britain, countries not dissimilar to Australia politically or in their level of development.
What is evident is that the consequent pain is not being suffered by those who caused the economic crisis but by ordinary workers.
Even more galling is that conservative forces in politics and the media in these countries are sheeting home the blame for the crisis to public sector workers.
Over 132,000 public sector jobs were lost in Britain in 2010 and the number of public sector jobs being shed is accelerating.
Official estimates are that 330,000 public sector jobs could be lost over the next four years. British unions believe the figures will be much higher.
The National Health Service is not being spared. The Conservative-led government is to cut £20 billion ($32 billion) from the NHS budget.
The Royal College of Nursing estimates 27,000 health positions will be lost over the next five years.
In the United States, public sector workers are being blamed for the crisis in state and local government budgets – while those responsible for the GFC continue to give themselves fat salaries and bonuses.
In Wisconsin, the newly-elected Republican Governor is using the crisis to justify laws that would end collective bargaining rights for state employees (see p.22). Fellow Republican governors in a host of other states are poised to follow suit.
It would be easy to think these things are happening far away and it could never happen here. That would be naïve and short-sighted.
It is not that long ago since conservative forces in politics, business and the media were advocating and implementing similar policies in Australia.
Several weeks ago Peter Reith, a former Minister for Industrial Relations in the Howard Government, pulled the metaphorical wooden stake out of his heart, resurfaced and urged Tony Abbott to show courage and put WorkChoices back on the political agenda. It is a timely reminder that for many in the Liberal party, destroying collective bargaining, workers’ rights and unions is an article of faith. It is an agenda that never goes away.
The decimation of the public sector is not just happening in Britain and the United States. It is happening in Ireland and Greece and other developed countries.
We need to heed their lessons and avoid complacency.
The NSWNA has become active internationally through the Public Services International and locally through the Better Services Better State campaign so we are prepared if similar attacks resurface in Australia.
NSW nurses in the public and private sectors and in aged care have won very good improvements in pay and conditions in recent years.
We have just won the commitment and the funding for about an extra 1,400 nurses in our Public Health System.
We should have perspective about these gains. They are achievements that bucked global trends. They were hard fought for but they are always vulnerable to attack and need to be defended.
Nurses need to stay united and the NSWNA needs to continue to build our numbers, strength and activism if we are to consolidate and build on these gains.
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