Drawing the lessons from a 5-year pay and conditions battle

Public sector workers speak-out!

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Unionists gathered on 27 March for a rich discussion about the protracted Commonwealth public service agency bargaining battle, which concluded in February.  The Fair Work Commission had made a binding Workplace Determination for staff employed at the Department of Home Affairs.

Freedom Socialist Party hosted the occasion, featuring a panel of Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) workplace delegates. The meeting drew CPSU delegates and activists with a wealth of experience organising in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Bureau of Meteorology (BOM), CSIRO, Departments of Home Affairs and Human Services and the Fair Work Ombudsman. Unionists from a range of other industries shared common themes from their organising. 

Unrealised potential. Agency bargaining has been a disaster for the Australian Public Service (APS). Prior to its introduction in 1992, the APS had a single pay scale for jobs requiring the same broad capabilities. Since then, different agencies have bargained alone, leading to different pay outcomes — and widening the gender pay gap. The APS was once the trend-setter on working conditions, encouraging workplace diversity and providing flexible working conditions to bring work/life balance a little closer to reality. More recently, conditions have gone backwards, as the government’s bargaining framework has limited how much agency managers can offer staff.

The CPSU recognised the weakness of having many different agreements. It coordinated agreements so that they would expire around the same time, with most set to end in mid 2014. However, the strategic advantage of common expiry dates was massively under-utilised. The strategy should have been to unify the entire public sector to win good agreements for all. If this strategy had been mapped out, it would have promoted solidarity and built confidence by developing an appreciation of public workers’ industrial power. Instead, timid officials did not dare discuss coordination, curtailing most activity to bargaining agency-by-agency, and leaving those in agencies with lower membership density with no clear pathway to victory. 

One panellist described the experience at the ABS: after rejecting a bad offer, a second all-staff vote narrowly endorsed a poor agreement in 2016, despite spirited CPSU opposition. Faced with another bargaining round, these workers voted in 2019 for a new ABS agreement which entrenched losses in conditions and union rights from 3 years earlier, and delivered just a 2% annual pay outcome. 

“Sexist and racist” is how a delegate from the Department of Home Affairs characterised the Workplace Determination brought down by Fair Work Australia. The court savaged family-friendly conditions and put strict limits on the use of personal leave, removing the right to access leave for cultural or religious purposes. The guaranteed right to return from maternity leave on part-time hours vanished with a stroke of a pen. The pay outcome was a big cut in real terms when considering the 5-year pay freeze. Almost half the workforce is required to work nine minutes more every day. Workers in remote locations have lost thousands of dollars and have less take-home pay now than in 2013. 

At BOM, workers imposed bans, walked off the job, held mass meetings and sought community support. They backed union recommendations to reject bad offers, decisively voting down three, before narrowly accepting a fourth by just a handful of votes in 2018. 

While the details vary across the APS, the big picture has been the same.  The government’s restrictive bargaining framework — an ultimatum to take it or leave it — capped potential pay outcomes at below the cost of living and mandated the stripping of conditions from agreements. The only way better outcomes could have been achieved was through a collective fight to smash the bargaining framework. Without this fight, pay stagnated, conditions eroded and union rights were lost. 

Even though the sector-wide fight was kept contained, workers tenaciously resisted — voting down bad agreements over and over, imposing bans and stopwork actions. This prevented outcomes that would have been even worse. 

Hands off our public services! There is a war going on against the public sector that is part of the global neoliberal assault. The public sector once provided services directly to the public. Today, public servants are largely restricted to formulating policy, procuring services from the private sector and managing contracts. Having a person provide the public with some assistance is considered “too expensive” — even contact centres are being phased out, replaced by digital-first options managed by tech giants. Those that remain are outsourced to a few big players or staffed by labour hire workers. 

The ruling class peddles propaganda about an inefficient public sector and repeats the mantra that the private sector can do better. The truth is that outsourcing costs more, delivers less and intensifies the exploitation of the workforce. 

Governments, both Coalition and Labor, impose the annual “efficiency dividend” — a fancy term for budget cuts. The Coalition set arbitrary staffing caps which blow out waiting times. This manufactured crisis becomes convenient cover for privatisation, converting tax payer dollars into fat profits!  Meanwhile the long-suffering public gets very little service. 

The CPSU leadership did not do enough to mobilise union members to build alliances with the broader union movement and the public, who rely on quality public services. Union officials have alliance-building plans but keep this organising contained and controlled. They orient to peak bodies, not grassroots users.

We are the union! Officials in the CPSU tell members that the union is democratic. But while there is the appearance of democracy, members have little real influence. 

The CPSU is run by an elected National Executive. However, there’s no real democracy or forums for a collective contest of ideas. Democracy is limited to online surveys. Union members do not hear what other members think, nor do they make the decisions.

The high point of the bargaining campaign was mass meetings in 2015. Many unionists had their first taste of walking off the job. In Melbourne, the CPSU packed out the Town Hall with members from across the APS. The mood of the meeting was electric. But the opportunity to advance the campaign towards victory was missed. 

The meeting was an entirely top-down exercise, scripted and staged. No questions or debate were allowed. Had the official motion been debated, a more militant proposal would have tested the views of the membership. Instead, the officials had already determined what they would “allow” union members to do! The message was to keep organising agency-by-agency, vote down bad agreements and stick to the rules.

Know your friends and enemies! Without a winning strategy and no back pay on offer, more groups of workers isolated in their agencies narrowly voted to accept management offers. Others imposed bans and stopwork action with no sector-wide coordination. 

When rolling stoppages by Home Affairs workers began impacting airports, it hit the economy hard and put the pressure on the employer, the Coalition government. 

The government relied on Fair Work Australia — its industrial court that is part of the capitalist state — to intervene and order CPSU members back to work. This happened twice. The first time, workers were ordered back to work and told they could not strike for three months. This experience should have been enough to teach what Fair Work is all about! However, when strikes re-commenced and Fair Work again ordered that they stop, the CPSU officials terminated the bargaining and requested binding arbitration at Fair Work. This outcome was presented as a wonderful victory, because Fair Work was “the neutral umpire” and not bound by the bargaining framework. This was a terrible lie! Dispersed union members did not have the opportunity to hear from socialist delegates who argued that, far from neutral, Fair Work is the bosses’ court! 

Some industrial battles are won, some are a draw, and others are lost. But it is crucial that union officials tell the truth. The first truth is that the ruling class wants to control unions and restrict workers’ ability to struggle. This has always been so! 

In contrast, when workers unite and are prepared to take militant action, unionists can win. History is rich with examples. 

In 1974, Australia had the highest strike rate on record. These strikes weren’t protected — workers banded together and exercised their industrial muscle. When workers used the power of the strike, the gap between the rich and the poor was at the lowest point at any stage in Australia’s history. Faced with this upsurge, the ruling class granted concessions to workers including free university education and the introduction of Medibank, which became Medicare. 

Looking to the future. It is crucial that working people learn the lessons from every struggle, whatever the outcome. A benefit from a half-decade of bargaining is a whole new generation of public sector workers with the experience of imposing bans and walking off the job. It is crucial these members understand why the result was not better, what mistakes were made along the way and who to listen to next time around — timid union officials or grass-roots delegates and activists demanding workers have a say.   

The experience of APS bargaining certainly confirms the message from the Change the Rules campaign —the rules are rotten. Winning some changes to the more restrictive elements of the Fair Work Act and the Registered Organisations Commission, which keeps unions tied up in red tape, is urgent. But these changes will not be a magic bullet — under capitalism, the rules have always been stacked against workers. Unionists will not achieve even modest gains unless the fight continues beyond the election. The goal of the 2005 – 07 Your Rights at Work campaign was to get rid of repressive anti-union legislation. The outcome was the current legislation that dogs us today. 

The ALP made no significant promises at its National Conference last December to seriously overhaul the Fair Work Act. It’s promising more access to arbitration! However, they’ve made some commitments to stop outsourcing the public service — something that they could have done, but did not do, when last in office.  The ALP has also agreed that its “efficiency dividend” (budget cut) would be 0.5% less than the Coalition.  

In the event of the Morrison government being booted out of office, the task for CPSU members is to ensure the next government cannot ignore its determined, well-organised, unionised workforce. 

These are the key immediate demands: 

• an end to agency bargaining, that results in massive inequality across the APS, including the gender pay gap
• an end to the scourge of outsourcing and use of consultants
• all formally outsourced functions to be provided by permanent public workers
• an end to the efficiency dividend! Guarantee staffing increases when volumes increase
• reinstatement of flexible working conditions and delegates’ rights
• no restrictions to the right to collectively withdraw our labour, including the right to engage in political strikes.

The current industrial laws impose restrictions on unions that are designed to fine the union movement out of existence. To change the rules, it is necessary to break the rules. The place to start is to take back our unions and challenge those who tell us that we can’t!

The meeting which generated these ideas brought together CPSU members with a shared perspective about what is needed for the fight ahead. If you would like to work with Freedom Socialist Party unionists contact us at freedom.socialist.party@ozemail.com.au

Want to know more about our analysis of the long-running public sector bargaining battle? The following articles are available in the Freedom Socialist Organiser online archives at socialism.com

Cross sector fight-back needed to defend public service pay, conditions and jobs (July 2014)

Public sector workers prepare for a fight back in 2015 (January 2015)

CPSU organising and industrial action: Government is taking notice, but the battle far from over (October 2015)

Public service bargaining battle Union launches fund to sustain stood-down workers (January 2016)

Ready to fight, but which way forward for the CPSU this election season? (June 2016)

Stand with public sector workers – Resist state interference in the union movement (June 2016)

After three years, public sector unionists remain defiant against anti-worker bargaining rules (January 2017)

Change the rules through union power, seized by workers! (January 2018)

It will take more than a change of government to win rules that work for unionists (April 2018)

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