Centrelink workers get fired up about anti-union misuse of Public Service Code of Conduct

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Workplace Relations Minister, Peter Reith, is fond of advising private sector bosses to get tough with unions. Now he’s using the same script to tell Commonwealth Public Service heads how to bully public sector workers. Earlier this year, his department issued a disputes management manual advising department heads to lie, confuse, discredit and provide misleading information as negotiating tactics.

Last December, the Public Service Act 1922 was replaced with the Public Service Act 1999 which aims to “modernise the public service.” (That is, to bash the unions and make public servants the political tools of the government.) The Act “devolves” management within the Public Service, giving more power to Departmental heads, now dubbed “CEOs.” In response, the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) campaigned to demand consistent rules across the Australian Public Service (APS). The union gained a major victory when it stopped a clause which would allow workers to be employed on a temporary basis for up to six years, thus preventing the massive casualisation of the APS. It also achieved other important modifications to the Bill compared to the original proposals. The focus of attention is now on how the new law will be implemented.

Under section 15 of the Act, the CEO in each Department is required to put in place procedures for determining if a worker has breached the APS Code of Conduct. This code is the means by which public servants are to be conscripted to their employers 24 hours a day, if it is allowed to be applied as the government intends. Within the Social Security Department, now called Centrelink, an important struggle is taking place between management and unionists to establish the limits of this Code of Conduct.

Free speech threatened. Just two months after the new régime came into force, Jonathon Sherlock, the CPSU delegate at the Sunshine Centrelink Office, was investigated under the code for failing to uphold “public service values.” Sherlock attended a public meeting in support of retrenched textile workers in his suburb, who were campaigning to win their entitlements. He was approached for a comment by a reporter from the Melbourne Herald Sun. Sherlock made it clear he was speaking as a union delegate, but was quoted by the paper as a worker from Centrelink. This prompted an investigation under the Code of Conduct. The investigator accepted that Sherlock was attending the meeting on his own time, that private citizens have the right to comment and that he made clear he was speaking as a union delegate. Despite this finding, he was still found in breach of the Code of Conduct and given a formal reprimand because he mentioned where he worked!

With the backing of the CPSU, Sherlock has lodged an appeal to the Public Service Merit Protection Commission. The appeal is not yet finalised. Sherlock told the Freedom Socialist Bulletin he will consider taking a discrimination complaint to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Appeals Tribunal if the appeal fails.

Would you please stop harassing this union member? These words were used by Marcus Banks, the CPSU delegate at the Moreland Centrelink Office. Banks was investigated under the Code of Conduct for allegedly raising his voice while representing a union member suffering from a work-related stress condition. He was reassigned to the Darebin Office for the duration of the investigation. The investigator found against Banks and recommended a forced transfer to a Call Centre.

The Area North Central CPSU Delegates Committee responded strongly in defence of Banks. Mick Burnside, the secretary of the committee explains: “The delegates believed this was a test case to establish if the Code of Conduct has any teeth. Marcus was charged simply for doing what we consider to be our day-to-day work as delegates.”

Burnside explains: “It was an industrial decision to charge Marcus so it required an industrial response. It was such a minor allegation to make against a staff member. Once delegates relayed the information to Centrelink workers, half day stoppage motions began popping up across the area. There was anger that this was happening to a delegate, because members understood that, as a delegate, Marcus was representing them.”

Although the charges against Banks have not been withdrawn, management baulked at implementing the recommendations of the investigator. Burnside sees the outcome as a win, “because the objective of the Defend Marcus Banks campaign was to get Marcus back to the workplace and to have the issue dealt with locally. And, in the end, that is what happened. Marcus is still the delegate at Moreland and is still representing members.”

Burnside considers the outcome has wider implications: “My impression is that other CEOs may back off a bit. The message is that the Code of Conduct is not the green light to go ahead and sack and intimidate union delegates and activists in the way some Departmental heads might have thought.”

Union organising is not misconduct! The cases of both Marcus Banks and Jonathon Sherlock highlight the serious danger of allowing the APS Code of Conduct to become a tool to limit union activity. Sherlock, Banks, Burnside and the many other active CPSU members and delegates have shown the way by responding swiftly, strongly and publicly to this very serious abuse.

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