Resist stagnant public sector wages with a cross-agency fightback

CPSU members at the Australian Bureau of Statistics demanding a better pay offer. Photo courtesy CPSU-CAAN.
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Members of the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) and Commonwealth public servants have long endured difficult times. The reasons are starkly political. Has it been ten years or much longer? The last Coalition government overseen by the sequential triumvirate of Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison made life hell for public servants. Or the rot may have set in 27 years ago with the election of the hard-right Howard regime. While these administrations have made things worse, the genesis of the current problems goes back more than three decades to the introduction of agency bargaining in the early ‘90s by the neoliberal government of Paul Keating. This followed the Prices and Incomes Accord of the ‘80s, which hollowed out the union movement by leaving no role for grassroots organising. The political wind has been blowing cold for public workers rights for many decades.

How did it get so bad? Before the introduction of agency bargaining in 1993, workers across the Australian Public Service (APS) had equivalent pay and conditions, regardless of where they worked. Agency bargaining was ideologically driven — influenced by internationally ascendant rightwing politics. The Hawke/Keating Labor government implemented a raft of neoliberal economic policies that were harmful to workers and the broader community. Along with sweeping privatisation, it embraced the idea that competition would bring efficiency. This era was stressful for public servants as working conditions worsened and gaps in pay opened between workers at the same level. What followed was the long and even more destructive period of conservative Howard government dominance. The Labor government from 2007 to 2013 brought little change to public sector industrial relations other than a partial alignment of timing of agency agreements across the APS.

Delegates urge members to say what they think about the government’s pay offer. Photo courtesy CPSU-CAAN.

For beleaguered public servants, the trend became entrenched — work harder, for less. Workers were forced repeatedly to bargain away hard-won rights to, at best, maintain real wages levels. Bargaining under the Coalition government became almost meaningless, as no improvements were permitted. In 2015 the government turned the screws tighter, imposing a new bargaining policy which made bargaining even more difficult. The policy, which agencies had to follow, ruled out gains in conditions whilst capping any movement in pay to minimal levels. Initial offers saw agencies having to contend with near zero pay offers, while conditions were stripped and working hours increased. This led to the first widespread cross-agency industrial action in twenty years, including mass meetings. The hardline Coalition did not let up. This, combined with the highly restrictive Fair Work Act, led to most agencies settling for poor agreements. One agency had a non-negotiated determination imposed by the Fair Work Commission after having strike action terminated.

As if it couldn’t get any worse, next came the catastrophic second Morrison government with disastrous bushfires linked to climate change and a once-in-a-hundred-year global pandemic. Demands on the public service increased, but the government found new ways to drive down wages in real terms by linking public servants’ pay to the wage price index (WPI), which measures the cost of labour across the economy. It also rewarded workers for keeping society’s essential services running during the pandemic with a mid-COVID pay freeze! When inflation hit 8% post-pandemic, workers’ pay plummeted in real terms, and it is still going backwards. The cost of living has increased dramatically. And workers are not being compensated. Linking public sector pay to movement in the WPI has been disastrous — many workers’ pay was adjusted by a measly 1.9% in the middle of 2022 at a time when inflation soared!

The battle today. Public sector wages today are stagnant. The latest data from the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations shows what workers know: pay is going backwards. The same data shows that the trend for the last 20 years has been down. This history makes the current CPSU claim for 20% over 3 years, with 9% in the first year, look very modest.

In May 2022, the Albanese Labor government was elected. Hopeful unionists looked to Labor’s election pledges to deliver improvements. For public servants, it started with promise. The new government delivered on its commitment to APS-wide bargaining — the first time in thirty years! (See “A move to Public Service-wide bargaining brings opportunities for workers,” Freedom Socialist Organiser, April 2023.) The CPSU heralded this new beginning to members and delegates as a real turning point. And, with the right strategy, it still can be.

It also promised to get wages moving. This has yet to be seen. APS-wide bargaining for pay and service-wide conditions continues. Some departments got a stop-gap 3% pay increase mid-2023 after the WPI pay policy ceased. But there are real and deeply disappointing problems. The first pay offer is low — 4% in the first year, followed by 3.5% and 3% in subsequent years.

While 4% is higher in percentage terms than any offer during better economic times in the past ten years, at barely half the rate of inflation it is an insult to workers and cannot be allowed to stand. Workers’ living standards have been going backwards for years — the offer does nothing to address this. No wonder 86% of CPSU members voted to reject it. As well as a sub-par pay offer, the CPSU team bargaining with the Australian Public Service Commission has inexplicably met a stubborn veto on very reasonable claims for enhanced conditions in the union’s bargaining claim, for example leave entitlements to support staff through gender transition.

Limited vote for action. Industrial laws enacted by years of anti-worker governments on both sides of politics have made industrial action virtually illegal except during bargaining and according to complex rules. The CPSU national leadership has moved to enact these rules by moving to a protected action ballot (PAB) at the largest agency, Services Australia. Union membership is voting on a range of industrial measures, including strike action. Membership is strong in Services Australia as a result of the agency management being stubbornly resistant to good faith bargaining. This ballot is right and necessary — but it should not stop there.

The CPSU leadership is squandering the opportunity presented by APS-wide bargaining. It is letting slip the chance of a service-wide fight against a Labor government not prepared to deliver on its commitment to get wages moving and captive to inevitable business and conservative pressures. It is vital that the momentum which APS-wide bargaining presents is not lost. The CPSU must challenge the divide-and-rule tactics wielded by governments over many years. National officials are letting members down by refusing to authorise members seeking PABs across the whole APS. It has taken three decades to achieve APS-wide bargaining — the chance for all public servants to unite and fight is now.

If it was not plain that a serious fight would be needed in the beginning — with the offer on the table — it is plain now. The government is proposing not just more of the same — flat pay, inequality across agencies and erosion of conditions. With the cost of living soaring, accepting the government’s offer would deliver greater cuts in real terms than APS workers have endured for many years. This is all presented under the banner of getting wages moving for workers and uniting the public service! Fine sentiments, but the reality is not matching the rhetoric. The principle of an APS-wide agreement, and the hope and opportunity this presents, must be fulfilled. CPSU officials must lead a fight for this bargaining to succeed — moving to PABs across all agencies is a crucial step. CPSU members are eager to seize the opportunity that this hard-fought APS-wide bargaining brings. Let’s do it!

Denis is a Community and Public Sector Union Section Councillor at the Australian Bureau of Statistics. He is a member of the CPSU Cross Agency Activist Network. To get involved contact