Unionists and the community fire up to fight Centrelink cuts

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On 19 November, Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre was filled to capacity. Striking Centrelink workers in the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) voted unanimously to launch a campaign to stop a cut of 5,000 jobs. The meeting was one of dozens held simultaneously across the country. The cuts were announced in a blaze of publicity, which accompanied the unveiling of a new “service delivery model.” The workers are angry and insulted by management claims that the sackings, which amount to 20% of staff, will lead to a more efficient and personalised service!

Creeping privatisation. Centrelink is a corporatised agency, which in 1997 replaced the Department of Social Security. Its stated aim is to be a one-stop shop for government services. Using a privatised model, Centrelink currently has contracts to deliver services on behalf of seven government departments. As each expires, these contracts will be put out for private tender, forcing Centrelink to compete for the delivery of welfare services. Many parts of Centrelink have already been privatised. Recruitment is conducted through private personnel agencies. Private companies distribute pension concession cards and the Age Pension News. Medical assessment, previously conducted by Commonwealth Medical Officers, are now contracted out to private providers.

Since July 1997, 2,000 Centrelink jobs have gone. Concern is high among Centrelink workers that, if implemented, the further 5,000 job losses will set the agency up to fail, thus making it easier to privatise.

Overwork means long queues. Workloads in Centrelink are enormous. Staff in offices and telephone call centres cannot keep up with the demand generated by Centrelink’s 8 million clients.

Dylanie Conrad is a sole parent whose low income is supplemented by a Parenting Payment and Family Payments. She explains: “I’ve experienced real difficulties because of the inadequate staffing levels at Centrelink. I am a casual worker, so I have to phone in to report my wages every second Friday. Some days, I keep pressing the re-dial button over and over, but the phone is constantly engaged. If I can’t get through until the Monday, then I’ve called too late and I’m in trouble. The proposed staff cuts will definitely make situation worse.”

Mannie De Saxe is an age pensioner. He believes that “the previous government started the destruction of service, and this government seems determined to accelerate the process.” He is very concerned about the impact of the cuts: “The service will become non-existent, the remaining staff will be over-stressed and, by downgrading Centrelink, the government will be making it more difficult for people in need to access benefits. This will cause social upheaval, the breakdown of communities and increased impoverishment.”

People with disabilities have special needs. Judi-Ann Leggets is a spokesperson for the self-help group, Disability Support Pensioners (DSP) Australia. She is worried about management plans to replace workers with technology: “The cuts will create a very nasty environment for Centrelink officers. Many of our members will not understand why the appropriate time is no longer given on them. Computers are a wonderful invention, but our members need the experienced human touch of someone who can take the time to understand their problems.”

Leggets explains that DSP Australia “has a big job ahead to try to fill the gap while a member is waiting to see a Centrelink officer.” The demands on the organisation – which collects food, medications, clothing and medical aids to directly assist disability support pensioners in need – are growing rapidly. Leggets’ experience confirms the findings of Living on the Edge, a recent report by the Australian Council of Social Service. ACOSS found an explosion in the demand for community-based welfare agencies, due to increased unemployment and government policies – making it more difficult for people to access welfare. The peak body has come out in strong opposition to the proposed job cuts.

Maria Dawson, an unemployed retail worker on Newstart, is concerned about the cuts and is determined to fight them. “The waiting time to see a worker can take ages,” Maria explained. “But when you do get to talk to Centrelink staff, they are very sympathetic and extremely helpful. It is clear Centrelink is understaffed and the people who work there are overworked. The government’s planned cuts will make it worse for the public – who are now called “customers” – and will make it harder for Centrelink to provide the service we need. But these cuts can be stopped if workers, unemployed people, students and pensioners unite. That’s why I went along to a protest rally against the cuts.”

The cuts can be stopped. The government has found little support for its staff reductions. Management’s claim that the cuts will lead to improved customer service have been dismissed as ridiculous. The massive problems caused by abolishing the accessible Commonwealth Employment Service and replacing it with the private, difficult-to-use Jobs Network have tarnished government assertions that it’s possible to spend less and provide more through the miracle of competition.

The CPSU is in an excellent position to win this campaign. Community support is strong, the government’s plan is discredited, and the desire of union members to prevent further job losses is high.

Leigh Hubbard, Secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council, addressed the Melbourne mass meeting. More than a publicity campaign is required to win, he cautioned. Hubbard, who spoke about the inspiring solidarity generated for the Maritime Union of Australia, conveyed support from across the union movement for a counter-offensive to stop the cuts. He urged a concerted fightback by Centrelink workers as a catalyst for union and community support.

Union meetings around the country called on the government and Centrelink to immediately provide proper funding and resolved to continue the political and community campaign against the cuts. Centrelink workers walked off the job for the rest of the day and voted for further industrial action. The CPSU built on the national strike’s success with two weeks of rolling state-by-state half-day stoppages.

The re-negotiation of the agency agreement is also linked to the staffing dispute. The employer is offering a paltry 2.5% productivity-based pay rise, which amounts to a pay cut after cost-of-living adjustments. Management has also mounted a further attack on working conditions. It is proposing to abolish a public service holiday, extend opening hours and limit overtime payments. Plans to extend hours in telephone call centres to 7.00am – 7.00pm and axe flex time would further worsen conditions in what the ACTU describes as “white collar sweatshops.”

The union must win on staffing, pay and conditions. To do this, tactics preventing union members from becoming isolated their workplaces are crucial. Industrial action, combined with regular, democratic mass meetings and coordinated union and community activities, are the key. Unions are about organising collectively. Centrelink workers – supported by the rest of the CPSU, other unions and the community – are a mighty force. Let’s feel the power!