The political drama surrounding last week’s NSW nineteen new council merger proclamations has been intense but now the serious work of forming new councils begins and it’s up to the local government workers left behind to pick up the pieces.
While council workers’ jobs, work location and pay are protected for three years under the Local Government Act, these are turbulent times ahead for people in the sector as new councils find their feet while continuing to provide services.
The United Services Union (USU) has been working with Parliament crossbenchers, including Christian Democratic Party leader Fred Nile and Shooters and Fishers MP Robert Borsak, to extend protections against forced redundancy to five years.
Small rural and remote communities with less than 5,000 people – where councils often employ most of the working age population – have an assurance that forced redundancies will not occur.
General Secretary of the USU, Graeme Kelly said the drawn out merger process had been “emotionally very draining” for council workers and the end result had been “a bit of a shock” even for those who expected it.
“People have been going to work every day not knowing when decisions were going to be made that might affect their political council,” Mr Borsak said. “Every council was under the spotlight. At least they now know what they’re dealing with.”
“It will be a change for them, it’s quite a fearful prospect, not knowing if you’re going to work in the municipality or the new council; what the long term plans are or what the new structure is going to look like. They will go through a number of emotions over the next couple of years [and] this is part of a complex process that they’re not in control of.”
Mr Kelly said council workers would experience their jobs changing; new organisational structures; different council pay scales and “over-zealous HR officers trying to argue for the lowest wages and industrial agreements”, which could all take their toll.
“It’s all well and good making proclamations and [creating] new councils but the reality is an industrial nightmare that our members will go through over the next three years.”
Mergers could hit older workers particularly hard as they could face an uphill battle to find work, if they were turfed out in three years, “People who have been loyal and long serving employees …. it could be quite devastating,” said Mr Kelly.
The union will send officials to each of the 19 new councils over the next couple of days to negotiate with councils about the transition and meet with members.
Mr Kelly said that even though council staff would experience turbulent times it was “not the time to panic” and the union would help.
“I understand that some of them would feel the need to go because all they have known and what they have worked for has dramatically changed but that’s up to the individual. Our message is not to panic and the union will always be there to assist.”
A reference group has been set up to help councils through the transition. Members include Local Government NSW, The Office for Local Government, the Department of Premier and Cabinet and three public sector unions.
On Thursday 12 May, the NSW Government proclaimed 19 new councils to replace 42 existing councils. Nine additional amalgamations are in limbo.
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