A tidal wave of change is sweeping over the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU). The year opened with members feeling optimistic that — with a coordinated fight across the Australian Public Service (APS) — bargaining might finally deliver real improvements in pay and conditions as well as equity across the sector. (See: A move to public service-wide bargaining brings opportunities for workers, Freedom Socialist Organiser, April 2023). But as the year draws to a close, the wrong strategy has frittered away the optimism about bargaining and a militant caucus, Democracy4CPSU, is rapidly growing.
The new caucus has a plan to build a fighting union, that is, “by members and for members.” It is backing the Members United Team, which is challenging the incumbent leadership, the Melissa Donnelly Team (MDT), in the union elections happening now.
MDT is backed by the little known Progressive Caucus, which promotes career union officials in the Australian Labor Party (ALP) for elected office. It has imposed top-down control of the union for three decades.
The incumbents’ strategy is to elect Labor governments, promoting this as the best way to deliver a public service with competitive pay and conditions that is well resourced and respected. In 2007 Progressive Caucus moved to formally affiliate the CPSU to the ALP. It made this significant decision without putting it to a membership vote. In 2022 alone, fees paid for ALP affiliation totalled $182,930. Imagine if this amount was, instead, contributed each year to build a strike fund.
Tim Hume, a Section Councillor at the Bureau of Meteorology, wants to see more distancing of the union from the ALP. “As a public sector union, we find ourselves in the unique position where our supposed allies in the Labor Party are also our bosses, at least whilst the ALP remains in government.” Hume believes that the CPSU should have had a “decent chance of making up for the decimation of the public service, which has occurred over the last decade.” It’s failed to do so “because of a massive conflict of interest.” Members United highlights that the current national secretary of the CPSU is also a member of the ALP National Executive and calls on her to resign from this role. It pledges that, if elected, it will conduct a plebiscite so all members can decide about ALP affiliation.
Pay and conditions in the public service have steadily eroded over the last 30 years. The rot started with the 1993 introduction of Enterprise Bargaining by the Labor government, which put an end to common pay and conditions across the public service. Today, pay and conditions are fragmented, with wide gaps between agencies.
The superannuation package, offered to workers when joining the public service, has also diminished on the watch of the Progressive Caucus. Pay gaps have widened between APS workers and their bosses in the Senior Executive Service (SES). Since 2005, the median base salary for a worker at the APS6 level has lost $5,414 in purchasing power. While the wages of an SES3 have increased by $81,847 in real terms!
Opportunity squandered. The Albanese Labor government, elected in May 2022, promised to revitalise the public service, which has been gutted by a decade of brutal staff cuts. Part of this plan was to introduce service-wide bargaining across the sector for pay and core conditions — a move welcomed by CPSU delegates and activists. But while willing to offer common conditions and a sector-wide pay offer, it is not willing to stump up the money to fund a wage rise in real terms.
A 20% pay increase over three years was at the heart of the CPSU claim. Members who developed the claim see it as genuinely required to address the soaring cost of living and reverse the decline in real wages.
When the government made its offer, workers were shocked by the miserly 10.5% over the life of the agreement. Amelia Taylor, a Section Councillor working at a large department, says, “I was hoping it was a mistake! I was at work when I saw the offer. To see all my comrades working so hard and have that come through was an insult to all of us.” The offer was swiftly rejected by CPSU members.
The next step should have been serious preparation for industrial action across the APS, using the opportunity presented by service-wide bargaining.
The incumbents organised a successful Protected Action Ballot (PAB) but tragically limited this to a single agency, Services Australia. Workers in all other departments were reduced to spectators, while members at Services Australia imposed limited industrial action.
The government came back with its second pay offer, just 0.7% more: 11.2%, a result which would still see workers’ purchasing power continue to erode.
William Mudford, who is running for National Secretary on behalf of Members United, says, “In APS bargaining, instead of delaying action to poll the membership for several weeks and then ignoring the result anyway, we would have gone straight to protected action ballots across the whole APS to escalate our action – satisfying the conditions for democratic endorsement by members, while getting on the front foot.”
Adam Mayers, who is contesting the position of Deputy National President, points out that the CPSU “must fight as hard as other unions. During our recent bargains, the CPSU leadership has never held a rally, never set up a strike fund, and consistently talked up conditions ‘wins’ to cover up failures on pay. Members United has a very simple message: If you don’t fight, you lose.”
Having wasted vital organising time after the first offer, the officials — starting to feel the pressure from the growing rank-and-file rebellion and the looming electoral challenge from Members United — began scrambling to organise PABs in more agencies. Workers at the Fair Work Ombudsman, Department of Employment and Workplace Relations as well as Meat Inspectors and On Plant Vets at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry have all commenced industrial action.
Albanese government must pay up! The poor pay in the public service is making it hard to attract workers, especially in specialist fields. Many workers are thinking of leaving. Denis Mann, a Section Councillor at the Australian Bureau of Statistics, believes, “workers have long been financially strangled by anti-worker governments and their proxies.” He argues, “25% over 3 years would go some way to making public service employment attractive again.”
Alex, a CPSU delegate in a small agency, says the government’s pay offer “is a slap in the face for APS workers.” He thinks “service-wide bargaining presented a unique opportunity to restore some of the damage caused by years of ideologically motivated attacks on the APS.” He was “outraged to see the Labor Party and the affiliated CPSU leadership squander this opportunity.”
Hume argues that “the government can clearly afford to give public servants an increased pay offer, because they claim to be able to afford the Stage 3 tax cuts for the wealthy and are purchasing expensive military equipment, such as submarines.”
Another APS worker, who supports Members United, told the FSO, “Pay will always be the biggest issue for workers at bargaining. With record inflation and a decade of wage freezes and low-balling by the Coalition, I think 20% is a reasonable ask. The offer of 10.5% was bullshit. The increase of 0.7% to 11.2% over three years demonstrates a lack of willingness to actually come to the bargaining table from Labor.”
Mann adds, “The illusion that the government was going to get wages moving is completely exposed by this offer. In the context of the current economic circumstances, the offer is a real pay cut. It is a pittance. It is an insult that the CPSU leadership wants people to get their so-called pay ‘rise’ — even a terrible one that is really a cut — as soon as possible. This sums up how badly bargaining is going.”
A change of approach is long overdue. Mann, who backs the need for change, wants a union where “leadership listens to members and delegates and acts accordingly.” He wants “a real attempt to break the APS divide-and-rule policy, which is still in place despite service-wide bargaining.” Central to this, he argues, it is essential to overcome the laws which “limit action to an agency-by-agency basis with its many restrictions” and to defeat the “outlawing of strike action.”
The Members United supporter we spoke with agrees. He wants the union to be “more proactive with plans and capacity for industrial action.” He values that those running for Members United are rank-and-file workers like himself, explaining that “the CPSU needs to have workers in its executive who know the struggles that public servants are currently facing.”
APS bargaining continues and the CPSU elections are taking place now, with votes closing on December 6.
Members United has a real chance of winning positions on the National Executive. It is also running candidates for several Section Secretary and Governing Councillor positions. Regardless of the outcome, there will be a solid core of activists from Democracy4CPSU in leadership positions and fighting for real change.
Adriana Boisen, Members United candidate for National President, believes that the current leadership “has eroded the democratic structures of our union, leaving strategy to reactive polls… Bold and dynamic democracy will reinvigorate our union movement.” Taylor agrees: “We need mass meetings, where members can raise their concerns directly with other members. We certainly need less member surveys with questions that don’t address the very real concerns members have. We need less top-heavy announcements, where members find out what the CPSU is doing only after it has been decided.” Alex adds, “I want to see a genuinely member-led union with a powerful workplace presence during and outside of bargaining periods.”
Taylor explains that she is “supporting Members United because, as a union member, I deserve to have representatives who are willing to hear what I have to say. All members deserve this! The candidates are some of the most dedicated and hard-working union members I have ever known. Like I am, they are sick of being ignored.”
A more democratic union will become a stronger union. We say bring it on!
Alison Thorne and Maudie Osborne are CPSU members, who are part of the Democracy4CPSU caucus. Contact them at email@example.com.
CPSU members who would like to join the Democracy4CPSU caucus can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about the Members United ticket: membersunitedteam.com.