Council workers and community supporters rallied outside Brunswick Town Hall in Melbourne on Wednesday to demand workers employed by Moreland City Council get a fair pay rise.
The protest was part of united campaign of industrial action from blue and white-collar council workers including librarians, cleaners, garbos, childcare workers, community support workers and home-care workers—members of the Australian Services Union (ASU).
Starting at 3am, garbage workers launched the one-day strike, which followed two weeks of bans, with effective picketing at their depot in Hadfield. They reportedly blocked every gate, preventing scab contractors from entering. Library workers also walked out of work to join the rally.
The rally was addressed by ASU state secretary Lisa Darmanin, workplace delegates and other workers, as well as socialist councillor Sue Bolton and Victorian Trades Hall Council secretary and local resident Luke Hilakari.
Moreland Council workers have not received a wage rise in more than two years. Management’s original offer in enterprise agreement negotiations was 1 per cent a year, since raised to 2 per cent, even though inflation is running at 5.1 per cent. Management also wants to lock workers into a four-year deal.
The ASU claim is for a pay rise of at least 3 per cent but rank-and-file workers who addressed the rally called for a pay rise that, at minimum, would maintain their living standards against inflation.
Darmanin highlighted that Moreland was “one of the most progressive councils in metropolitan Melbourne” (out of 11 councillors, four are Greens and two are socialists) yet it didn’t value its workers.
The rally chair said Greens councillors had refused to back the council workers publicly, stating that the decision to grant them a pay rise was an “administrative matter” for the CEO.
The Greens issued a statement supporting union rights and the right to strike but noting “the Local Government Act prohibits councillors from directly engaging in council enterprise bargaining negotiations”. Yet both socialist councillors attended the stopwork rally.
The Greens’ abstention is a missed opportunity. Public support from Greens, Labor and socialist councillors could put pressure on the Moreland CEO—and by extension could challenge the chronic underfunding of council services.
Darmanin criticised the Andrews state Labor government for imposing a rate cap on councils that limit their ability to raise funds. But ratepayers don’t need to be played off against council workers.
Federal grants to councils have declined from 1.2 per cent of Commonwealth revenue in 1993-94 to 0.61 per cent in 2015-16.
In 1975, public libraries were funded 50:50 by state and local government. Victorian government library funding is now down to just 17 per cent.
Council workers and ratepayers are both feeling the squeeze in low wages and underfunded services.
A library delegate who addressed the rally highlighted the council’s hypocrisy, saying: “How quickly we went from essential to expendable.”
Several other library workers spoke. One said: “We risked our health and our safety to come in and deliver for the community” during the pandemic, revealing that she’d caught COVID at work.
“We care about our community. We don’t want to strike. We asked nicely for the conditions that are completely reasonable and the council said ‘No’ without an explanation, blaming this rate cap when they have millions of dollars in surplus.”
Another rank-and-file worker highlighted the power of workers taking industrial action. “What we are doing today is working! At the very start of negotiations, we were told ‘We would not budge’. Our actions made management budge.”
She added: “We are not just here as librarians, who have seen immense support from all of our patrons, we are here for our peers in cleansing, in aged care, child care, kindergarten, community care. We are here for all council staff across the state and all workers everywhere.”
A long-time Moreland garbage depot worker called on the council to live up to its previous statements that its workers were “their best asset”.
Councillor Bolton expressed solidarity with the workers’ struggle and highlighted how important every instance of workers taking action was, in the face of severe anti-union laws.
She argued that workers’ living standards had declined, not just because of the pandemic or the more recent ongoing war in Ukraine, but as the longer-term result of anti-union, anti-strike laws.
Meanwhile, the council had accumulated millions in surplus. This should be spent on giving workers the pay rise they deserve.
This sentiment was echoed by Luke Hilakari, who pledged Trades Hall’s full support for the struggle.
The ASU is encouraging members and community supporters to attend the next Moreland Council meeting on Wednesday 11 May at Coburg.
If the claim is not met, members will walk out again the following day.
By Tom Fiebig