Before the March 2023 NSW election, state ALP leader Chris Minns made a series of promises to public sector workers: to hire more nurses, to create more teaching positions and to improve public sector pay and working conditions, including scrapping the public sector wage cap of 2.5 percent for all 400,000 public sector workers.

Within hours of Labor claiming victory after twelve years of Coalition government, the peak union body, Unions NSW, declared this an opportunity “to restart how we do industrial relations and deliver public services”. 

The Australian Financial Review even described the proposed axing of the wage cap as a move “likely to embolden public sector workers in Victoria, where the Andrews Labor government has a 1.5 percent wage cap”.

All such hopes (or in the case of the AFR, fears) have sadly come to nought. The Minns government never intended otherwise. The whole thing was a cynical move to wind up industrial action by the unions in the run-up to the election, with the added bonus of getting the union leadership to fall in behind Labor’s election campaign.

The reality of what the unions had convinced their members of became apparent within a few months of the election. Rather than act on its promise, the Minns government instead chose to wait until the regulation that limits pay rises expired, a further six months delay after Labor won on a platform of scrapping the wages cap. 

When the government finally revealed in early July that the first part of its pay offer would be a mere 4 percent pay rise plus an extra 0.5 percent on superannuation for one year, even Minns had to acknowledge that the offer was not in line with inflation. After this real wage cut, the previous Coalition pay cap of 2.5 percent was to be reimposed for the following three years. Like many Labor governments that betray their supporters, he excused this attack with the well-worn phrase that “It is significantly different to the previous government”.

By August, even Unions NSW secretary Mark Morey was telling the Sydney Morning Herald that the government’s offer resembled the Coalition’s public service wage cap and would leave public sector workers earning the same as they had in 2013, once inflation was accounted for. 

“It’s not just about teachers, it’s all the workers who stood out on polling booths or voted for Labor because they wanted change”, Morey lamented. Unlike the euphoria of election night, this time he was right.

Before the election, union officials sang a different tune. They sold Labor’s false promises to their members as good coin, called off industrial action and mobilised to secure a Labor victory. 

A typical example is what has happened to NSW Teachers Federation members. Minns was invited to speak to the NSWTF council in October 2022, five months before the election. As well as promising to abolish the state wages cap, he claimed he would “instruct the Department of Education to immediately begin negotiations with the union ... with a view to reaching a comprehensive agreement to reduce workloads and make salaries more competitive”. Teachers were deliberately demobilised by their officials in order to throw their weight behind the union’s “More Than Thanks” election campaign.

In the aftermath of Minns’ wages announcement, a Western Sydney principal was only stating the obvious when she told the Saturday Paper that returning to the 2.5 percent wage cap for three years “breaks faith with election commitments”. She went on to add: “Teachers are white-hot with rage because they went to the polling booths and fought for [Minns] to be elected because he promised to drop the cap. The 2.5 percent for the other years is the cap”.

A previous agreement reached on 31 May at a meeting between Teachers Federation President Angelo Gavrielatos, NSW Education Minister Prue Car and Treasurer Daniel Mookhey was simply torn up as too expensive. Eschewing strike action, the union announced a toothless “Honour the Deal” campaign that is being ignored by the government.

Nor have other public sector unions shown any fight. On 21 July, the Public Service Association was the first union to accept the government’s pay offer. The others have since caved.

Yet there have been complaints from members in every union that the pay increase represents a real wage cut at a time of sharply rising costs of living. These are the bright spots in this otherwise dismal picture.

The NSW Nurses and Midwives Association polled its 50,000 public hospital members on whether to accept a 4 percent pay rise. In an abject display of weakness, NMA State Secretary Shaye Candish announced that the union leadership had not taken a position on the proposal. That a big minority (40 percent) of union members voted against the deal, despite no lead being given, is something to build on.

Such was the anger about the 4 percent offer that Health Services Union Secretary Gerard Hayes concocted a formula for a one-year flat $3,500 increase to all base rates of pay to get the deal over the line. Coincidentally, it will cost the government no more than the 4 percent would have. But more encouraging is that Hayes felt the need to do it at all. Perhaps the rowdy heckling (“Pay us more!”) of NSW Treasurer Daniel Mookhey at the HSU conference in early July gave him the hint. 

There will need to be a return to serious strike action across the public sector if the government’s attacks are to be reversed.