Ready to fight, but which way forward for the CPSU this election season?

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On June 30, it will be three years since most public servants got their last pay increase. Meanwhile, the cost of living continues to rise and workers face jobs cuts at every turn. But it is not only workloads that are increasing. The anger and determination of members of the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) also continues to grow. Workers are determined not to accept agreements with weakened conditions and pathetic pay offers. The Coalition government’s bargaining framework is one big mess.

Two years since agreements expired, 80% of public servants do not have a new agreement. The Australian Public Service Commission advised agency heads not to make any formal offers during the long election period. Until then, agencies continued to vote “no.” The last was the Attorney General’s Department. The Tax Office delivered a second decisive rejection vote. And Department of Defence staff also voted “no” twice, the second vote having a higher margin and greater participation. The workforce at Aboriginal Hostels Limited, which has the largest First Nations staff in the public service, rejected a woeful offer with 95% voting NO!

Strikes banned, but plenty of fight! Fair Work Australia (FWA) ordered an interim pause on strikes at the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) in April, followed by an order for strikes to cease for three months. DIBP workers can notify industrial action on 3 July — the day after the federal election. Furious union members voted for a statement that they had lost confidence in both the department’s senior management and the Prime Minister.

The unprecedented level of anger is such that, with bold leadership, large numbers of members would standing together can defy the state ban on strike action. And without doubt, members are ready for a political fightback. The majority support the slogan “If the government won’t change their attack on Border Protection workers, it is time to change the government.”

In May, union members at Sydney Airport rallied to call for a change of government, carrying placards, “If we can’t strike, we can still fight.” DIBP management responded with heavy-handed “reminders” about the public service code of conduct with claims that navy union T-shirts simulated Border Force uniforms! But just days later, Prime Minister Turnbull posed for photos with uniformed Border Force workers while electioneering in Darwin.

It’s time to learn from 2007! There’s immense potential to build a politically independent movement, mobilising community support for public sector workers. Instead, the CPSU National Executive is throwing all its effort behind the ACTU Dial For A Better Future campaign, which is based on get-out-to-vote phone calls in 34 marginal seats. This pro-ALP campaign is redirecting unionists away from workplace organising. This approach is a mistake.

The way to change the government is by organising in workplaces and on the streets and building community support for clear demands that advance workers’ interests — not merely supporting the lesser evil of mainstream parties.

In 2007, when Labor was elected after a long absence, senior officials across the union movement, including the ALP-affiliated CPSU, considered the job done and wound back community mobilising. But Labor in government introduced the Fair Work Act, which is now being used to order DIBP workers not to strike.

Without doubt, the majority of public sector workers would be thrilled to see the back of the current government. But when public servants wake up on 3 July – whoever is in government – a fight will be needed to win decent pay and union rights, and to keep basic work conditions. To win, workers need a mass union and community campaign that pursues their class interests, independently of the parliamentary system.

The analysis in the Freedom Socialist Party solidarity statement, Stand with public sector workers! Resist State interference in the union movement! is finding a receptive audience amongst the best fighters. Contact us at:

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