The last decade was grim for workers in the Australian Public Service (APS). By the time the Morrison government was defeated in May 2022 the service was threadbare. The real value of public service pay had plummeted. Bargaining was governed by restrictive policies which prohibited improvements in conditions and imposed caps on pay outcomes, making genuine bargaining a fiction. Arbitrary staffing caps encouraged agencies to rely on consultants and labour-hire workers. It was a kick in the guts when mid-pandemic, with workloads rising exponentially as the community needed the public service to deliver, the government imposed a six-month pay freeze, delaying promised payments that had already been agreed.
The Albanese government promised significant changes to bargaining, and the task ahead for public sector workers is to ensure they deliver. The key promise is that it will introduce service-wide bargaining, replacing single agency bargaining.
Many workers have been waiting their entire career for a system which pays workers equally for transferable skills, regardless of which department they work for. Agency bargaining was introduced by the Keating Labor government in 1992. Over three decades, the result has been ever wider pay gaps between agencies. For example, pay differences at the APS4 level — where workers typically perform frontline service delivery roles — are more than $20,000 annually between the highest and lowest paid agencies. Female-dominated agencies are lower paid, and the lowest paid of all are predominantly staffed by First Nations women.
Public servants were planning for a change way back in 2011, when most agency agreements expired mid-year. Central to this was a mechanism to close the pay gaps. This plan was dashed when the Gillard Labor government backed away from addressing these issues, insisting that agency bargaining, which produced these inequities in the first place, be retained. In 2015, as agency agreements with aligned dates expired, unionists in the APS could have united to defeat the restrictive bargaining framework. But this opportunity was missed largely due to the lack of real union democracy in the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU).
This collective memory is a powerful impetus for unionists organising at the grass roots to win a better outcome. Workplace delegates, Section Councillors and rank-and-file activists across a range of different public service agencies have formed the CPSU Cross Agency Activist Network (CPSU-CAAN). The group has developed a set of bargaining principles, which call for a meaningful pay increase, better conditions and an end to the pay gaps. It advocates a community campaign, asserting, “there’s never been a better time to unite the Australian public with Australian Public Servants”
Central to the principles is that a democratic strategy will be essential. “We can’t sit back and wait for better wages to fall into our laps. We’ll only get what we fight for, so a real democratic mobilisation is crucial. A five-minute online survey can’t build a robust log of claims for bargaining. The CPSU should call for and organise mass member meetings in every city, to allow genuine debate and discussion among the CPSU membership,” the document concludes.
Denis Mann, a CPSU Section Councillor and CPSU-CAAN activist, says, “The national officials are already trying to manage expectations, telling members it will take ‘a few goes’ before we can close the pay gaps between agencies. What this really means, given the time between bargaining rounds, is that workers could be waiting another decade! We simply can’t wait any longer and the time to get organised is now.”
If you are a CPSU member, you are invited to endorse the bargaining principles and get involved with CPSU-CAAN to be part of rebuilding a fighting union. Contact CAAN for a copy of the bargaining principles, or view them on the group’s Facebook page. Email: CPSUCAAN@gmail.com
Alison Thorne is a CPSU Workplace Delegate and an activist with CPSU-CAAN. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org