Still fighting for equal pay

In a decision heralded as the biggest victory for gender pay equity since the 1970s, Fair Work Australia in early 2012 granted wage increases in the female-dominated Social and Community Services (SACS) sector of between 23 and 45 percent over the next nine years. This was a breakthrough in the long-running campaign for equal pay with our counterparts employed directly by the government, who are paid an average of $15,000 more a year. The outcome is the result of thousands of SACS workers mobilising across the country, many for the first time. We have won an important legal and moral victory, but the campaign also shows that even in a sector with little union tradition it is possible to organise and make important gains.[i]

Background

A 2008 Australian Services Union (ASU) survey of over 2,100 SACS workers showed that many of them enjoyed aspects of their work but were being driven out by low pay and stress, resulting in a 20 percent turnover rate, much higher than the all-industries average. Fifty-two percent were not committed to staying in SACS beyond the next five years. The biggest single reason given for leaving was to receive “better pay elsewhere”.[ii] These comments sum up typical sentiments:

“I know so many workers who work in the industry because they love it, they are passionate about caring for people, so they sacrifice money and volunteer to do more hours and are not getting noticed for this. As workers on the ground see what has to be done, they just do it and the government will let them keep doing it as it saves them money.”

“Whilst I enjoy client contact and believe in the work of NGO community services sector, I neither have good career development prospects nor get a good wage for the work I do – many community organisations are under-resourced…so staff are undervalued in terms of wages, etc.”

There are significant barriers that have to be overcome in trying to organise SACS workers on a class basis, and to establish a trade union culture. The nature of the sector tends to undermine class consciousness. Originally social services were mostly provided by church-based services, which helped create a culture of sacrifice. Also, the workforce initially came from a predominantly middle class background, people for whom a liveable wage was of less importance. And the SACS sector has always used a large number of volunteers, which undermines workers’ conditions. In 2000, when NSW SACS workers were seeking an award upgrade, volunteers in the sector outnumbered workers two to one.

In the 1980s and 90s, Labor and Liberal governments introduced privatisation and competitive tendering. This allowed governments to offer funding to intermediary health and welfare agencies which then had responsibility for running the services. So when SACS workers bargain with our employers, we are consistently told that they have not been given the funding for higher wages and any increases would come out of money for services. Despite the fact that when workers push the issue many employers will often miraculously find room to manoeuvre and grant better pay rises, there is some reality to this argument. Legally we can only bargain with our employer – but our employer isn’t holding the purse, the government is. Workers are often employed on short-term or fixed-term contracts dependent on funding renewal. This fragile financial situation can discourage workers from rocking the boat and risking ongoing government funding. Workers can also be convinced to sympathise with employers against their government funders, making them less inclined to fight for their own interests. How best to get increases in government funding has been a constant debate in the campaign, with moderates arguing that politely lobbying governments was the sensible way. But with state and federal governments committed to cuts in social spending we needed an aggressive campaign that consistently put them under pressure to force anything out of them.

The campaign

In 2008, using the results of the survey they had commissioned, the ASU held campaign launches around the country. These were not large, but big campaigns often start with a small core of committed people, and they indicated a cautious optimism about trying to improve the sector. One of the slogans that emerged was “Respect the workers, sustain the services”. This argument emphasised the need for better wages and conditions to attract and keep a workforce which could then deliver better services to vulnerable clients. This slogan appealed to SACS workers who could be defensive about demanding higher pay, but would be more confident to argue that higher wages would result in a better service. This argument also gave workers confidence that we could win broader support.

Initially it looked like a big ask to build a campaign able to exert serious pressure on governments. The SACS workforce had very little cohesion or identity, union membership was very small and our history of industrial combativeness was even smaller. Generally SACS workers do not have significant social or economic power, we do not create profits for employers or contribute to the smooth day-to-day running of capitalism, like transport workers for example. But this does not mean that industrial action is useless – if 20,000 workers in disability support, community health, youth and housing, school counselling and legal centres all went on strike together, society would notice. The disruption it would cause is not something governments want to have to deal with. However the power to win demands on the state by industrial action is not as great or obvious as in productive industries. The ASU is just getting off the ground in SACS, and the sector has almost no history of serious industrial action. The confidence to defy anti-strike laws in a way necessary to win does not currently exist – hardly surprising, in the circumstances of this union, especially given that even the traditionally more militant, stronger unions are not leading a push to defy Labor’s anti-union laws. This reality informed the actions Socialist Alternative members argued for. While we established with other activists that SACS campaigns would be more powerful with the use of widespread industrial action, we recognised that to get to that situation would require mobilising for actions workers were prepared to take. At a series of mass meetings and SACS conferences the most important arguments were that we could actually win, that we had to fight to win and that even if we didn’t win, we’d be bigger and stronger for the next fight.

The first step was to build a stronger SACS identity amongst workers. We work in small workplaces and even those in large organisations like Mission Australia and the Salvation Army tend to work in small teams across lots of locations. This inhibits workers seeing themselves as part of a whole sector and can lead to them feeling isolated and powerless and harder to organise as unionists. There are also many unrelated types of work, so neighbourhood house-workers for instance don’t feel a natural affinity with drug and alcohol services. Distributing the results of industry surveys and regular newsletters helped generalise the experiences of thousands of formerly isolated workers, and to win a layer of workers to the demands of the campaign.

The second step was to use our new cohesion and energy for a campaign to reach out to other workers. Different types of SACS workers became “ambassadors” for the campaign, often asked to simply explain the work that we do and why we do it at multi-union events. Local rallies in suburban shopping strips further bridged the divide between workers at different sites but also provided the first chance for ASU members to take our message to the public. Out of this work developed a layer of members who saw themselves as activists. The public activity also started getting the campaign and the “brand” of SACS workers coverage in the media. Every time red-shirted SACS workers appeared in the news the stories and images would hit inboxes and noticeboards across the sector and these small successes surprised us and spurred us on. The next natural step forward was a larger centralised rally which could have an empowering effect on participants that smaller actions can’t, and provide a chance for more people to join a campaign to clearly target the government. Building work started for a statewide day of action on 10 November 2009.

All of the campaign events in Melbourne up to this point had been out of business hours or short enough that workers could attend in their lunch breaks. Mobilising workers from across the state to a proper rally meant dealing with not being at our jobs. From early on, the ASU had tried to get SACS employers to endorse the campaign with the argument that we were fighting to win them extra funding. Having this endorsement could potentially embolden many workers who were getting involved in union action for the first time. Employers were asked to allow ASU organisers into workplaces, speak in support of the campaign, and allow employees to attend campaign events. There were clearly problems with this approach, namely that workers could conclude from the apparent “alliance” that employers are on our side. However, after years of productivity drives and pressure on workers to sacrifice, it’s significant how few SACS workers have much love for their employers. Also, it is likely the central campaign rallies would not have got off the ground without the initial sanctioning from the agencies. By the day of the rally we had over 90 organisations signed on to endorse the campaign, sometimes because they were convinced by the argument and sometimes because workers asked more firmly or made it clear that they would be involved in the campaign with or without management consent. Activists used this to convince other workers to leave work and stand up for themselves.

On the day three to four thousand marched on parliament. The rally was loud, and the energy was electric. There was also a show of solidarity from other unions we had actively sought out. The rally provided the sense of collective power that the campaign had missed until then. It made a big impact on the workforce, was a chance for direct participation, and provided a springboard for the further involvement of thousands of workers. For many, it was their first collective action with their workmates. The turnout made people think we could win. For any SACS workers waiting for a sign to start paying attention, this was it.

Increasing union membership was seen as a precondition for the kind of fight needed. And all of this activity led to a membership increase of over 35 percent in Victoria by late 2009. Many of the activists at the core of the campaign believed that in future we would need to resort to industrial action and that building our membership now was an investment in our future.

Earlier in 2009, the ASU ran a legal case in the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission (QIRC) arguing that SACS workers were undervalued because of gender. The commission granted wage rises of 18-37 percent to reach pay equity with their government counterparts. The same week as the November 2009 rally, the ASU launched a case with Fair Work Australia (FWA) to argue for the same logic to be applied to all SACS workers. This had the potential to turn the campaign into a purely legal one, substituting dead-end legal action for mobilising union members, as many unions have done. Adam Bottomley argued on the floor of a mass meeting in 2010 that only SACS workers had the social power to force the government to fund our sector better and got a big round of applause. The strategy from the ASU continued to allow and support the mobilisations of workers alongside the legal case, partly due to the Queensland outcome. The state government resisted funding the increase, threatening services with having to lay off staff or cut services[iv]. An angry outcry by workers saw the government cough up more funding, but even then several employers simply pocketed the funding and refused to pass it on to workers. One of the largest community organisations, Mission Australia, pocketed $500,000 of increased funding without giving a cent to workers.[v] It was clear that any legal case needed to have real world pressure to back it up in the streets and in workplaces, and so the campaign maintained the protests.

The next major action, the 10 June 2010 national day of action, saw 5,000 march in Melbourne and thousands more across most capital cities and a dozen other locations. It was described by the media as the biggest action for equal pay since the 1970s. The ACTU spoke publicly in support of the campaign and over a dozen other union contingents joined the protest. Significantly, just one week after the protests the Victorian Labor government announced that it would fully fund any wage increases decided by FWA. The Liberal opposition matched that promise. The next year saw several more centralised protests and mass meetings. Cecilia Judge, a socialist delegate and activist, became a regular on the platform at Melbourne rallies.[vi]

The Australian Industry Group, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Australian Federation of Employers and Industries all fought to maintain our low pay, throwing their lawyers at the legal case, attacking SACS workers in the media and pressuring the politicians in whatever way they could. Needless to say the Murdoch press consistently attacked the campaign,[vii] even suggesting strategies to the industry groups on how to keep SACS workers impoverished with headlines like “Bosses must ram home pay message”.[viii] Under this pressure, one after another governments began backing away from their commitments to pay equity. The most significant backflip came in November 2010 when the Gillard government’s submission to the FWA case stated that pay rises for SACS workers were not as important as maintaining a budget surplus, and threatened that pay rises might mean cuts to related government services.

SACS workers responded aggressively to Labor’s sell-out. Calls came from everywhere for immediate action. The initial response from ASU leaders also struck the right note, condemning the government’s funding priorities, reflecting the palpable anger of the membership.[ix] Protests called with only two weeks’ notice tested the determination of the campaign, but successfully mobilised thousands again. This showed that SACS workers had come a long way from our initial timidity. On the day of the protests Labor released a letter “clarifying” their support for equal pay and stating that their ability to balance the budget should not be a factor in the case. SACS workers were only listened to when we put public pressure on governments. In May 2011, FWA’s determination vindicated everything SACS workers had argued:

In this decision we have concluded that for employees in the SACS industry there is not equal remuneration for men and women workers for work of equal or comparable value by comparison with workers in…government employment. We consider gender has been important in creating the gap between pay in the SACS industry and pay in comparable state and local government employment.[x]

Frustratingly, FWA asked for further submissions about how to quantify the gender factor and what to do about it. A joint Gillard government and ASU submission proposed to fund pay equity over six years. The government allocated $2 billion to fund their share. This was a decisive breakthrough. Sensing things going against them, the employer groups and their media mouthpieces launched a new wave of criticisms.[xi] On 1 February 2012 FWA announced its final decision. The award that covers SACS workers would be raised to that of Queensland government workers. This amounted to 23-45 percent pay rises over nine years from December 2012 for all SACS workers on the award, nearly three-quarters of the sector. These increases were on top of annual national wage increments (usually between 2 and 3 percent). In recognition of the historically low level of bargaining in SACS, FWA included an extra 4 percent to compensate for the gap that is likely to continue to grow between the two workforces.[xii]

SACS workers were ecstatic. When we started this campaign, most thought that while it would be good to win some improvements, mainly we fought because somebody had to make a stand and we hoped we would build our strength to fight more battles in the future. To have squeezed serious pay rises out of governments which for years have been hostile to social spending felt fantastic.

However, there are serious limitations to the outcome. The nine years that FWA allocated to fix the problem is an insult when it acknowledges that the problem exists now. The turnover of workers in the sector means that many will not experience any pay rise. Lengthy delays are a huge concession to the Victorian and NSW governments who lied that they couldn’t afford what are modest amounts that any government could find instantly if they prioritised it. Governments will have nine years to weasel out of their commitments. The Victorian Liberal government didn’t even wait until after the FWA announcement to break their election promise to fully fund the outcome.[xiii] It’s also likely that governments will try to cut costs by reducing annual award increases and employers will likely fight harder against wage rises in EBAs with the excuse that workers “have already had a pay rise”. All of the problems in Queensland after their decision could face us now. That’s why SACS workers are already resolved to continue fighting.

Worker involvement

Worker involvement in the campaign was critical to build a culture in the industry that being in the union matters. Thousands of SACS workers have been active promoting and attending mass rallies and meetings and recruiting workmates to the ASU. Several dozen Local Organising Network (LON) groups were set up across Victoria to allow delegates and activists from workplaces in a specific suburb or town to meet and plan events. These groups (even though most did not continue for more than six months) were part of building the campaign’s identity. The more of these groups that are established the better, but they will only happen when a core of ASU members takes responsibility. One of the most important areas of worker involvement in Melbourne was the monthly Metro Delegates Committee (MDC)[xiv] which played the central role in proposing and planning mass protests. These groups were critical for using the energy and ideas of members. They are also an important forum for the actions and tactics of the union organisers and officials to be discussed critically and either supported or held to account. In an important step forward, SACS workers on the Mornington Peninsula set up their own delegates’ committee in 2011. The Victorian ASU also organised at least two mass members’ meetings each year of the campaign. These were often basic workshops on how to recruit to the union or explain the campaign to other people. Later in the campaign they became strategising forums where important questions about the tactics of the campaign, its relationship to the ALP, and industrial action and EBAs were debated out by an increasingly informed and opinionated layer of active members.

Union history

The weak tradition of union organisation and action in the sector can be more fully understood in the context of its history. The first attempt to unionise social and community services workers was by the Australian Social Welfare Union (ASWU) in the 1970s. Since 1947 and prior to its creation social workers could belong to the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) which was registered as a union but served predominantly as a professional association. In the early 1970s a core of politically active social workers emerged in the AASW, including a large number of radicalised students and members of the Communist Party. They pushed for the formation of a genuine union and in 1975 the ASWU was formed. The ASWU was also seen as an organisation that could campaign for the rights of welfare recipients. Bill Boughton, the first ASWU Federal President, described the union’s objective as to “build a radical union encompassing all welfare workers, providing them with industrial protection via agreements and awards, and also with an organisation which would campaign politically for more and better welfare services.”[xv]

The ASWU grew moderately from 1,000 during the start of their campaign for an industry award in the late 70s. It was run by a coalition of leftists, predominantly Communists (including Boughton) and also feminists and ALP members until the 1990s. The ASWU’s achievement was to win an industrial award covering NSW SACS workers in 1991. In what was mostly a legal battle, they faced fierce opposition from government and employer groups as well as other unions who did not want a new rival challenging their coverage. In 1992 the ASWU amalgamated with unions including the Municipal Employees’ Association into the ASU, of which SACS workers are a division.

For all the difficulties outlined above, when SACS workers do take industrial action, it can be effective. For instance workers refusing to report statistics to government departments or perform aspects of their job have been key to winning improved pay and conditions on a local level. One of the most important SACS campaigns was waged by Victorian Community Health Centre workers in 2002. Demanding a Multiple Enterprise Bargaining Agreement, they built up to industrial action which continued for four weeks, won a $100 per week pay rise across the state and membership and delegate structures grew. In Melbourne in early 2012, Socialist Alternative members played a leading role in a successful EBA campaign by SACS members in the Tenants Union which included several days of strike action.

Today the ASU has around 120,000 members nationally, and 25,000 in Victoria and Tasmania, of which SACS is approximately 20 percent. In Victoria the SACS division’s membership increased by an unprecedented 49 percent during the campaign, and the number of workplace delegates grew from fewer than 200 to over 300. These figures defy the broader trend of unions nationally, proof that struggle to improve members’ conditions is the way to build the union even in quite difficult circumstances.

The role of the ALP and FWA

ALP politicians were the target of our campaign. However the ASU is affiliated to the ALP, all its leading officials are ALP members, some rank and file activists are also ALP members and many SACS workers vote Labor. How do we navigate these relationships? ALP figures in government are several steps more removed from workers than union officials, generally making them more conservative and pro-capitalist. But the desire to be polite to their party mates in parliament usually leads union officials to put workers’ interests second. Small examples of this dynamic existed in the equal pay campaign. Where officials see Liberal governments as needing to be attacked, they see Labor governments, including Gillard’s, as needing to be coaxed. This meant at times refusing to mobilise workers. At a mass members’ meeting in mid-2009 Adam successfully moved a motion for a state-wide protest in November. Closer to the date the protest was called off. The officials argued that it might damage the Brumby government’s election campaign, and that negotiations with Federal Labor had reached a positive stage. Embarrassingly for officials who argued for this step back, the Gillard government’s rotten submission to FWA came out one week before the date scheduled for the protest.

When this submission became known Socialist Alternative members initiated an emergency delegates’ meeting and it was one of the largest of the campaign. An ASU organiser argued hard against calling a protest to condemn Gillard on the basis that officials were in negotiations with Canberra and we wouldn’t want to offend the government. ALP members in the leadership of the ASU also repeatedly mimicked the Gillard line praising Labor for bringing in the Fair Work Act which allowed the ASU to run the Equal Remuneration case. This argument downplays workers’ activity in the campaign and is a dishonest interpretation of industrial history. If the ALP was supportive of the campaign, why did the case need to be taken to FWA in the first place, costing the union hundreds of thousands of dollars? In any case, legal rulings count for nothing unless they are backed up by a rank and file campaign, as the outcome of the 2009 ruling in Queensland graphically shows. On the other hand, the partial but significant victory of the equal pay campaign puts SACS workers on a good footing to meet any attempts by governments or providers to undermine the FWA ruling.

Conclusion

Considering the weak state of the union in SACS before the campaign started, and the overall lack of industrial militancy currently in Australia, we had a very positive outcome. The campaign focused on recruiting new members and developing a layer of delegates and rank and file activists who decided the campaign’s direction, mobilising thousands. The tactics used revolved around building mass protests and criticisms of governments that had cut back services and run down wages for years. With more members and experience of previous battles under our belt, we could have gone even further and tested the option of industrial action to really amp-up the pressure on governments and employers.

The SACS Equal Pay campaign was a small but important step in the right direction. Involving thousands of workers in these actions won many to being serious unionists, developed a consciousness that we are a class in opposition to our employers and the state and showed in practice that it is our own mass collective action which has the power to improve our situation.



[i] This article is written from a Melbourne perspective. Members of other ASU branches may have faced different political questions and needed to argue different approaches depending on the local situation.

[ii] “ASU report shows SACS industry crisis looming”, 18 February 2008, http://www.asu.asn.au/media/sacs/20080218_socialinclusion.html.

[iii] Kate Lee, “Building social inclusion in Australia”, October 2007, http://www.asu.asn.au/media/building-social-inclusion2007-recommendations.pdf.

[iv] “Support Qld SACS workers to get the equal pay rates they’ve earned”, 28 September 2011, http://www.asu.asn.au/media/sacs/20110928_equalpay.html.

[v] Ben Shneiders, “Mission Australia kept funds from staff”, Sydney Morning Herald, 21 February 2011.

[vi] “ASU delegate Cecilia Judge speaks to the masses at the ASU’s Day of Action for equal pay”, 8 June 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=utCXJt8jOv4.

[vii] Judith Sloan, “Pay rises help only the few”, The Australian, 11 November 2011.

[viii] Michael Stutchbury, “Bosses must ram home pay message”, The Australian, 17 May 2011.

[ix] Kirsty Needham, “Budget trumps wage parity for women”, The Age, 19 November 2010.

[x] Fair Work Australia decision, “Equal remuneration case”, 16 May 2011, http://www.fwa.gov.au/sites/remuneration/decisions/2011fwafb2700.htm.

[xi] Ewin Hannan and David Uren, “Bosses fear cost of equal pay after nurses push wage claim”, The Australian, 11 November 2011.

[xii] “Fair Work orders pay rise for community sector”, ABC news, 1 February 2012, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-02-01/fair-work-orders-pay-increase-for-community-sector/3804682.

[xiv] “Groups for members: Social and Community Services delegates committee”, http://www.asuvictas.com.au/get-involved/groups.html.

[xv] Chris Briggs, Gabrielle Meagher and Karen Healy, “Becoming an Industry: The Struggle of Social and Community Workers for Award Coverage, 1976-2001”, Journal of Industrial Relations, 2007; 49; 497, http://asuvicservices.labor.net.au/jir_briggsmeagherhealy_2007.pdf.