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New union standoff looms over pay dispute

Local

A union representing workers “at the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic” says the Marshall Government is “attempting to slash the working conditions of vital health workers” – but Treasurer Rob Lucas insists their pay demands are too high.

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The latest Enterprise Bargaining standoff involves the newly merged United Workers’ Union, formed by the National Union of Workers and United Voice, the dominant presence in the SA Labor Left.

The union says it’s “calling out” Lucas “for attempting to slash the working conditions of vital health workers at a time when they’re needed most”.

A recent letter to the Treasurer, signed by UWU public sector director Sharron Caddie, states the union is “deeply concerned by your insistence that negotiations for a new Agreement should continue despite the continuing COVID-19 crisis”.

“Many public sector workers are experiencing this crisis first hand and are working tirelessly to ensure the continued delivery of essential services to South Australians,” she writes.

“Workers must be able to continue to focus on providing critical support to the public to help stop the spread of the crisis without concern for their working conditions.

“We call upon you to reconsider your decision and support public sector workers by agreeing to a rollover of the current Agreement for a 12 month period with a modest wage increase on 1 July 2020.”

The union did not detail the value of that increase, but Lucas told InDaily he did not characterise the demand as “fair and reasonable”.

He said the UWU was in a group of several unions negotiating new agreements.

“Our officers are negotiating with them in relation to what they want if they rollover [the current agreement],” he said.

“Their terms [are to] keep the conditions the same but with a salary increase guarantee… we’ve said ‘you know our position – we’ve budgeted for sensible and reasonable wage increases’.”

He said in a climate when the Commonwealth Government and other states are implementing freezes, “we’ll continue to negotiate in good faith for sensible and reasonable salary increases”.

“But we can’t afford increases which don’t fit that characterisation – that’s the clear message I gave them,” he said.

Nonetheless, Lucas conceded he did not favour a rollover of existing conditions, saying: “We want to see significant changes if we could.”

“But ultimately we accept the fact we’re in the middle of a global pandemic,” he added.

He suggested “in some cases unions may negotiate a salary increase higher than others because they’re prepared to negotiate an efficiency dividend”.

The nation’s self-described biggest blue-collar union covers workers in a range of industries, which it says includes “members delivering meals to sick people, pushing beds to ICUs, sterilising equipment and theatres for surgery, and doing everything they can to stop the spread of this pandemic while maintaining effective health services for South Australians”.

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