Public Servants Preparing for Industrial Action

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On 30 June agreements covering 95% of federal public servants expired with no new arrangements in place. The result? A showdown is looming between the Gillard government and public sector workers, organised through the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU).

Workers in the second and third largest agencies — Defence and Tax – have voted “ no” to substandard agreements which would deliver pay outcomes less than inflation. The vote to reject management’ s offer was 72% in Defence and 59% in Tax. Workers at the Department of Immigration and Citizenship also voted “ no” to management’ s offer by a two-to-one margin, while a resounding 75% voted “ no” in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. At the time of writing, staff in Customs are holding a vote and are also expected to vote “ no.”

On 1 July, a new super agency — the Department of Human Services — came into being. It is a merger of Centrelink, the Child Support Agency, Medicare and CRS Australia. Workers marked day one with Seeing Red protests. Despite months of talks, management are still pushing for a new agreement that contains low pay rates and cuts to conditions for many staff. The CPSU is demanding genuine negotiations and an outcome that does not leave anyone worse off.

Broken promises. In December 2010, the government backed away from a promise to move towards one agreement for the public service. This pledge was to include a mechanism to close the public service pay gaps, which means women and Indigenous workers likely to be lower paid.

The pay differential between the highest and the lowest paid agency — at the APS3 entry level — is $275 per week. Female-dominated agencies such as Medicare, Immigration and Centrelink are ranked 58, 73 and 84 out of 92. And the pay gaps get wider as public servants move up the scale. At the APS6 level, the gap between highest and lowest paid is $328 per week.

Indigenous workers are also badly disadvantaged. Three agencies with more than 20% Indigenous staff are amongst the lowest paid. Eighty percent of staff at Aboriginal Hostels Limited are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders. At the top pay points they receive $731 per week less than senior staff in the highest paid agencies. The story is similar in the Torres Strait Regional Authority and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, with 56% and 23% Indigenous employees respectively.

These facts make a mockery of government claims to support equal pay for women and to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.

Instead of moving towards a single agreement, the Australian Public Service Commission drew up a “ bargaining framework,” which leaves most of the gaping inequalities intact and also proposes cuts to conditions.

Multiple enemies. Workers are fighting three foes — management in their agencies, the Australian Public Service Commission with its unfair guidelines and the Gillard Government, which is ultimately controlling the purse strings.

Many CPSU members are angry that their union is affiliated to the Australian Labor Party (ALP) — the party of government — and those union resources are going to the very party that has failed so spectacularly to deliver on its promises. Officials who support this relationship argue it is beneficial because it enables the union to “ influence” government. Public servants are taught to take an “ evidence-based” approach to decision- making. A simple look at the evidence shows affiliation has failed — the government promised to fix the pay gaps and then reneged. The union should disaffiliate from the ALP and instead support candidates in elections who will stand unequivocally for workers’ rights.

Unionists working in agencies where staff voted “ no” to management’ s proposals are moving swiftly to “ protected action ballots.” To be successful, these polls of union members, conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission, require a participation rate of 50% and then a majority voting in favour of action. Members will be asked to support a wide range of actions, from bans and limitations to work stoppages of varying durations of one to 48 hours. The union advocates a “ yes” vote to all options and we support that position.

Where the union wins protected action ballots, it will then be up to members to determine the most effective action to take. In most agencies it is a long time since workers have taken industrial action. Many younger workers have never taken industrial action. Tactics that enable members to participate in democratic mass decision-making meetings and to take part in public rallies and marches, where the community can join in, will be most effective. Holding actions in multiple agencies at the same time will also be a powerful way to break down the “ silos” that years of agency bargaining have created.

The Community and Public Sector Union is in a unique position to massively expand its membership and to teach a whole new generation about the power of collective action. The Australian Public Service is embarking on this campaign at a time when public sector unionists in England are battling massive assaults on their jobs and pensions and Greek workers are striking against huge cuts in public spending and government-wide privatisation. Actions such as selective work bans, where small groups of individuals are left to hold the line, are not the best approach. The times demand that we learn the power of the strike!

Alison Thorne is a CPSU workplace delegates in one of the agencies currently engaged in a protected action ballot.

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