Anybody who may have thought the work of Canberra's garbage truck drivers wasn't a valuable service would have quickly changed their minds after being impacted by one of the three strikes that have taken place in recent weeks. It is unpleasant and inconvenient to have to live with full bins while household waste continues to mount.
The ACT government's intervention, the provision of drop-off points where Canberrans can take their waste themselves, is fine for some but not for others. Those without cars, the elderly, and the disabled, for example, find it difficult to take advantage of this option.
In an interesting aside, the only winner in the dispute between the drivers, who are represented by the Transport Workers Union, and their employer, Suez, which holds the ACT's household waste collection contract is the ACT government. The City Services Minister Chris Steel revealed earlier this week that neither Suez or the drivers were being paid when the drivers were on strike and that he hoped that would persuade the two parties would find "common ground".
Aggrieved residents, who have used the letters to the editor pages of this newspaper and social media to air their views, say the government isn't doing enough to end the ongoing dispute and that they should receive a rebate on their rates for the loss of a service which has been bought and paid for. That doesn't seem likely to happen anytime soon.
Much of the social media chatter is centred on what the drivers are striking for - a 12 per cent wage increase over the next three-and-a-half years - and what they are already paid.
While the TWU has rejected claims that if their demands were met drivers' wages would rise to more than $120,000 a year at the end of the new agreement, it is fair to say they are already on a pretty good wicket. Former Suez ACT manager Jason Stewart said the average wage, which takes in overtime, was $95,000 in 2016 before a string of 3.4 per cent wage increases.
While it's not unreasonable, as some people have done, to say "good on them" for being organised and achieving good income outcomes, the TWU and its members do seem to be losing the battle for hearts and mind. This is because, although their work is important, many people see such salaries as excessive when nurses, teachers, police and other emergency service workers are paid significantly less on average - particularly in the early phases of their careers.
Teachers have to forego three, four, or more years of income in order to acquire the qualifications to ply their trade. Nurses are on a continuous training curve, and a bad day at the office for police can involve being bashed, spat on, or even shot.
Meanwhile, many of Canberra's federal public servants will be wondering what the drivers were thinking when they voted to reject Suez's latest offer of 8.3 per cent over the next three-and-a-half years this week. They are facing an extended period of near zero wages growth after the federal government unveiled a new policy that requires public sector increases not to exceed those of private industry. And, across the border in NSW, where in some municipalities rubbish collections are carried out on Christmas Day and Good Friday unlike in the ACT, the state government has capped public service wage increases at 1.5 per cent per annum.
According to Bloomberg, public and private sector wage increases which had been tracking at above four per cent for the first decade of the century, have been declining ever since. They are now hovering between one and two per cent per annum.
Against this backdrop the optics of the current dispute are quite questionable. Drivers and management need to get this sorted and to get back on the job.