News / Council

Council workers strike in pursuit of fair pay

The municipal depot and libraries were forced to close when staff walked off the job

Some of the council workers who attended Wednesday’s rally.

Mark Phillips
Wednesday, May 4, 2022

SCORES of Moreland Council workers rallied outside the Brunswick Town Hall building on Wednesday afternoon following a major escalation of a long-running pay dispute. 

The rally came after hundreds of workers walked off the job earlier in the day, forcing the closure of libraries, the Brunswick customer service centre, the municipal depot and other services.  

Members of the Australian Services Union are demanding a fair pay rise from the council in enterprise bargaining which has been underway since August last year. 

They drew heavyweight support at Wednesday’s rally with speakers including long-serving Moreland Councillor Sue Bolton and the head of Victoria’s union movement, Luke Hilakari. 

Union members began industrial action on April 20, with 25 work bans place, including restrictions on street cleaning and sweeping, such as clearing street litter bins, litter pick up, and collection of garbage on council reserves.  

This has led to overflowing rubbish bins and mounds of litter on footpaths and gutters in the city’s most heavily trafficked areas, including the Sydney Road and Lygon Street shopping strips. 

The council has resorted to hiring non-union contractors to clear the bins. 

Wednesday was the first time workers have completely downed tools. The 24 hour strike began with a picket line at the municipal depot before dawn, with library workers walking off the job at 1pm. 

Workers are unhappy with the council’s pay offer of 8% over four years when inflation for the past 12 months was recently recorded at 5.1%. 

ASU secretary Lisa Darmanin said the workers had provided essential services throughout the pandemic and the improved offer of just 2% this financial year would be a wage cut. 

A librarian typically earns about $60,000 a year, while a street sanitation workers earns about $70,000. 

“A wage rise that is so far below increases in the cost of living would have the biggest impact on the lowest paid workers at Moreland City Council,” Ms Darmanin said. 

“ASU members who clean Moreland’s streets, work in libraries, waste management, in-home aged care, street cleaning, and so many more essential services are saying the current wage offer is not good enough.” 

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The council insists it has made a fair offer but is constrained from anything more by a state government rate cap of 1.75% and its own tight budget. 

But it conceded the strike would have an impact, delaying some services, such as household waste collection, by 24 hours. 

Council chief executive officer Cathy Henderson said the offer to staff was “one of the most favourable to staff of any council in metropolitan Melbourne”.  

“However, we also have a duty to our residents to be financially responsible. We must work within our budget and the state government rate cap, which limits our income.   

“While we acknowledge the legal right of staff to take protected industrial action under Commonwealth law, it is regrettable and unfortunate that this has had impact on services to the community.  

“I want to thank the community for their patience during this time. We hope these negotiations can be resolved soon.” 

At Wednesday afternoon’s rally, union delegate Brett Hudd, who has been employed by the council for 38 years, compared the treatment of workers by management in the current bargaining with the Kennett Government in the 1990s. 

“I’ve seen a two-year pandemic, with COVID, where we’ve turned up every day, and soldiered on and looked after our community and where our management thought that their staff was their best asset,” he told the rally. 

“We’re gonna send them a message that we’re still their best asset and they need to pay us what we deserve.” 

Despite councillors being prohibited by law from participating in enterprise bargaining, Cr Sue Bolton told the rally that she supported the strike action by the workers. 

Cr Bolton, who is running for the seat of Moreland for the Socialist Alliance at the May 21 election, said she did not accept that the rate cap was a reason to keep wages below inflation. 

“It’s a serious issue for councils, but it shouldn’t be used as an excuse to block workers getting fair pay,” she said. 

“If you use that excuse, that’s no different to all of the bosses that say, ‘Oh, we’re struggling, we’ve got hard times, we can’t afford pay rises’ … It’s no different to what some unions have described a lot of bosses as doing as having a business model that’s based on not paying workers properly.” 

Moreland Councillor Sue Bolton addresses the rally.

Victorian Trades Hall Secretary Luke Hilakari, who is a Brunswick resident, pledged the backing of the entire union movement for the striking council workers. 

“I pay my rates to make sure the workers here get paid fairly, and we’ve had enough of CEOs getting away with smashing their workforce like this,” he said. 

In addition to the outstanding pay issue, library workers, whose shifts regularly include evenings and weekends without any extra compensation, have their own specific claim for a regular span of hours to bring them in line with other Moreland employees. 

Brunswick library worker and union delegate Teishan, who declined to provide his last name, told the rally that he and his colleagues felt unvalued by council management. 

“We were essential throughout the pandemic, providing essential services to our community, but now, we’re expendable,” he said. “Now we’re not worth a fair pay rise. Now we’re not worth decent conditions that protect our health and safety.” 

Ms Darmanin said the escalation of industrial action was solely due to council management’s unwillingness to take ASU members’ concerns seriously.  

“The direct involvement of Moreland’s CEO in negotiations has been positive, but there are too many unresolved issues to reach an agreement on the enterprise agreement,” she said. 

Related story:

Rubbish spills onto streets as industrial action continues

Disclaimer: the author is a member of the MEAA and the ASU.