The Australian Public Service (APS) used to lead the way on working conditions and secure employment, but not any more. A decade of agency-based bargaining, where the government imposed low pay caps and prohibited any improvement in conditions, has seen wages flatten and conditions erode. Additionally the limit on permanent staffing levels resulted in many agencies entering into contracts with private labour-hire companies to supply a pool of insecure casual and fixed-term contract workers. With the sector having little to offer, many agencies have been haemorrhaging workers, who continue to look for better offers elsewhere.
The government’s recent removal of arbitrary staffing caps and launch of a new bargaining round, allowing genuine bargaining on pay and conditions, is refreshing for members of the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU). Grassroots union activists are feeling more optimistic that, provided they get organised, there is a real prospect of a better outcome.
A sector-wide approach. In the early nineties, the Keating government introduced enterprise bargaining. This system was based on workers negotiating pay and conditions with their employer, confined to their enterprise. The public service also switched from a unified agreement covering pay and conditions across the sector to agency bargaining. The government imposed the set of rules for negotiating, and then unions and management in each agency negotiated pay and conditions within this framework.
This time, the CPSU and the Australian Public Service Commission will negotiate a single outcome for the entire APS on central issues, including pay and all core conditions. The union and agency management will deal with remaining matters specific to each agency. The APS-wide agreement will then be combined with agreements on agency matters and put to a final vote by workers in each agency.
The CPSU developed a claim based on extensive membership input (including a survey about pay), feedback from delegates, discussion at the union’s Governing Council and a membership vote to endorse. The union is asking for a 9% pay increase in the first year, 6% in the second year and 5% in the third year. The claim also includes a cost of living clause, which guarantees higher pay outcomes in the second and third years if inflation rises.
Melissa Martin is a CPSU workplace delegate at one the larger agencies, where there is strong support for the claim. She says there is a mood amongst members determined to make genuine progress. “We are very aware of the cost to us all of the wage caps and understaffing over the last ten years.” Melissa is also “very encouraged” by the feedback she has received from members. She reports strong membership growth with “many more of my colleagues signing up to join the union.”
Melissa’s experience is not surprising. History shows that when unions listen to members and craft claims that reflect what workers want and are prepared to fight for, then union membership will grow. Workers want to be part of a collective campaign that’s worth winning.
Many CPSU workplace delegates and section councillors are jazzed up by the opportunity this sector-wide approach presents.
Tim Hume is a CPSU Section Councillor at the Bureau of Meteorology. Tim feels positive, because this is the first time in more than two decades that semi-centralised bargaining is taking place. “As unionists we know that our power is in our collective solidarity. APS-wide bargaining means we are in a potentially much more powerful position to achieve a better outcome for all workers in the public sector. Whether or not this actually happens is yet to be ascertained and will, to a large degree, depend on our ability to effectively organise public sector workers.”
Denis Mann, CPSU Section Councillor at the Australian Bureau of Statistics, agrees. He thinks, “APS-wide bargaining is a new and exciting opportunity to break the divide-and-rule tactics and harsh neoliberal economic thinking, which governments have forced on workers in all sections of the economy for over thirty years.”
Like Tim, Denis appreciates that, “We have to fight to really make a difference and not allow cynical employers at agency level to persist with unfair ‘trade-offs’ that have sapped our pay and conditions. That comes from involving new and existing members across the whole APS in the bargaining process to bring real and lasting change.”
No time to waste on closing the pay gaps. Agency bargaining has been a disaster for the APS. It has resulted in huge pay differentials for workers in different agencies, despite being required to have the same levels of skill. Workers in lower paid agencies, which tend to focus on human services, are predominantly female. The lowest paid of all are the ones with the largest percentage of First Nations workers. Such agencies continuously lose staff to higher paying agencies as these workers seek better pay.
The CPSU bargaining claim calls for a mechanism to close the pay gaps across the APS. Both the CPSU officials and the government have recognised its importance, but are talking about doing so “over time.”
The lowest paid agencies need much bigger pay rises in order to close the gaps right now, not some vague promise to address the issue in the future. Every APS worker needs 9% now. The lowest paid workers also need additional lump sum increases, which are payable once the agreement commences and then at regular intervals until they catch up.
Whose union? Our union! Workplace delegates and Section Councillors appreciate that genuinely involving workers across the APS will be key to maximising the results made possible by the new bargaining situation. For members, this is not an ambit claim. They see it as necessary to make up for a decade of going nowhere but backwards.
Ensuring that members can democratically discuss and make collective decisions at critical points in the campaign is crucial. The regional APS-wide delegates’ conferences, now under way, are a positive start. Mass meetings, when key decisions need to be made, must also be on the agenda. The APS has waited decades for service-wide bargaining. We can’t settle for anything less than our bargaining claim and ending the insidious pay inequality between agencies. We want these results — fast!
Alison Thorne is a CPSU Workplace Delegate. She is part of the CPSU Cross Agency Activist Network (CPSU-CAAN). Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For our analysis of the last APS bargaining round, see “Drawing the lessons from a 5-year pay and conditions battle,” Freedom Socialist Organiser, May 2019.