Rebuild public sector union power through the cross agency activist network!

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Faced with bushfires and a public health emergency, the crucial role played by public sector workers has never been more visible than in 2020. Workers organised public health information, helped people stranded overseas and delivered essential programs in record speed, including Job Keeper, Job Seeker, and Medicare rebates for Telehealth. The flexibility required was immense: many workers moved to temporary roles in different agencies. By way of thanks, on 9 April the government issued a media release announcing that this flexible, professional and skilled workforce would be subjected to a 6-month pay freeze with pay rises, already agreed to, deferred. 

The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), which represents public servants, responded with its own news releases criticising the plan. But it did not launch a campaign to mobilise members. It also stressed that a freeze on pay was bad for the economy. For many public servants who had seen their pay go backwards over the last decade, the passive response from their union to this latest attack did not sit well. 

Unionists from across a range of agencies began meeting to discuss the state of their union and plan what to do. The group named itself the CPSU Cross Agency Activist Network (CPSU-CAAN). Its goal is to build independent union power at the grassroots, to strengthen the culture of democracy, and to forge a bolder and more combative union. 

CAAN’s first initiative was a call to action and statement of concern addressed to the union’s National Executive. Signed by delegates and activists across multiple agencies, it proposed a member-led campaign, based on democratic campaign groups, to unite public sector unionists in demanding an end to the pay freeze and beating back outsourcing and casualisation. Driven by arbitrary caps on staffing, these attacks have led to an explosion of insecure work. CAAN warned that the lack of a serious fightback in April would invite further attacks on pay, conditions and job security. 

In mid-November the government replaced its widely loathed public service wages policy with one that is even worse. With wage growth at an all-time low, there’s a new cap on pay that ties any rises directly to private sector pay. Traditionally, the public sector has set the trend for wages across the economy. The new rules will see the public sector lagging behind already flat private sector wages, further contributing to stagnation. Currently, the share of national income going to workers has dropped to below 50% for the first time since 1959, and the COVID recession is making this worse. CAAN issued a call to CPSU members to “unite and fight to be paid what we are worth!” As well as analysing the problem, it is a call for what needs to be done. This includes creating spaces to be active and building solidarity amongst public and private sector workers. 

CAAN is supporting candidates in upcoming CPSU elections, with voting opening on 1 February. 

CPSU election candidate Matt Partridge.

Matt Partridge has been CPSU Section Secretary at the Department of Finance and works as an allocations officer at COMCAR (government car services) in Canberra. He is running for a Deputy National Secretary position at CPSU. Matt says that “our true power comes from union members standing together in solidarity.” If elected, he pledges to refocus on workplace organising and renew the union’s “sclerotic democratic structures, encouraging members to define and direct union efforts.” 

The largest agency in the Federal Public Service is Services Australia, better known to the community as Centrelink. CAAN is supporting Fight2Win, a team running Greg Brown from Brisbane for CPSU Section President and Jaimie Jeffrey from Geelong for Section Secretary. It is also running candidates for Governing Council positions in both Victoria and WA. 

CPSU election candidate Jaimie Jeffrey.

Jaimie Jeffrey explained that she is running for Section Secretary because she “wants to turn the CPSU into a strong, fighting union driven by rank-and-file members who determine how we go about winning good pay and conditions.” Jeffrey argues, “CPSU needs to engage the rank-and-file members in decision-making. This entails trialling creative new ways of organising, and it must include bringing members together either in person or via video conferencing. These mass meetings must foster genuine debate and the expression of alternative viewpoints. Surveys do not empower members. They present union leadership’s viewpoint in a subliminal way and elicit the responses leadership needs to justify its actions or inaction.” 

CPSU members are invited to meet the candidates and talk more about these issues at two CPSU-CAAN hosted zoom meetings on 28 January at 7 pm and 9 pm Australian Eastern Summer Time. 

If you are a CPSU member and would like to be part of rebuilding a fighting union, get involved with CPSU-CAAN. Contact CAAN for details about upcoming online meetings or for copies of the wages policy statement. Email: CPSUCAAN@gmail.com

CPSU-CAAN also welcomes opportunities to collaborate with members of other unions working to rebuild grassroots union power. 

Alison is a CPSU workplace delegate and member of CPSU-CAAN. Contact her at alison.thorne@ozemail.com.au 

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