There’s a global assault on public sector workers. Economic convulsions are sweeping Europe. Public workers—under attack from Greece to Spain and Ireland—are staggering from years of wage and pension cuts and layoffs. The story is the same in the U.S., where collective bargaining rights are threatened and pensions simply disappear as cities, such as Detroit, declare themselves bankrupt. In the UK, after three years of massive public sector strikes against austerity, the Tories are pushing a bill which would almost completely remove the right to strike.
In Australia, preparations by the Turnbull government are at fever pitch for a federal election later this year, based on demonising unions. It pushed through changes to Senate voting, designed to freeze out minor parties and give the Coalition a more favourable outcome. And in an extraordinary move, it recalled Parliament early and brought the budget forward by a week.
Leading the anti-union charge is Minister for Employment, Michaelia Cash. This hardened class warrior was welcomed into the role by the far-right HR Nicholls Society. She hates workers, especially if they are organised. Her mantra is less industrial regulation of employers and more regulation to “curtail union power.”
This is the context in which public sector workers in the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) are seeking to negotiate new Enterprise Bargaining Agreements (EBAs).
The good news is that a whole new generation of public servants, who have never taken industrial action before, are learning to flex their industrial muscle by imposing bans or walking off the job.
A long hard fight. On 30 June 2014, EBAs in most government departments expired. Management in each agency must reach agreement with its own workforce on pay and conditions. But agreements must comply with government rules. The real fight is between the entire public service and the government.
The bargaining framework mandates the “streamlining” of agreements, which would remove most working conditions that are actually enforceable. Union rights are not permitted, and the maximum pay allowable is a pay cut in real terms. This is a fight to defend a generation of hard-won working conditions.
Unionists in dozens of agencies have Protected Action Ballots (PAB) in place, which authorise swathes of bans and strike action. These are protected under the Fair Work Act (FWA). Workers have participated in actions including 24-hour strikes, rolling stoppages, reading union messages to callers on department helplines and a host of bans. Most agencies have put offers to their staff, some twice. In all but a handful of small agencies, workers resoundingly voted No. As of April 2016, 85% of all public servants do not have an enterprise agreement in place.
While union density varies across the public service, it is strongest in the big departments with large operational workforces. Many work in highly rostered environments, such as call centres or on shifts. These workers, amongst the lowest paid, have the most to lose. The Department of Human Services proposes to give just one month’s notice to change their roster or work location. Such arrangements could see a mother, with a child in care, required to change shifts or work at a different office with just a few weeks to change arrangements!
Airport workers are angry! Workers in the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) were forcibly merged with Customs. Both groups had different EAs. Two management offers have been flatly rejected. The latest offer would result in staff from the former Customs Service—now rebranded as Australian Border Force (ABF)—losing up to $8,000 a year in allowances. Management’s proposal would also entrench two pay scales. For staff in the Department, where a disproportionate number of women work, the pay scale would be lower. The head of the Department, Michael Pezzullo, enraged unionists when, questioned before a Senate Estimates Committee, he justified this with claims that ABF officers were more skilled than Department staff!
Faced with a furious, well-unionised workforce keen to strike, the CPSU launched a campaign fund to support members taking sustained industrial action. The wider union movement and the general public have contributed to the campaign, including the Freedom Socialist Party.
The union learned from the first intensive round of strike action, when management mobilised strike-breakers. Round two—due to kick off with a 24-hour strike by all union members in DIBP and the Department of Agriculture on the eve of Easter—was to be weeks of rolling action, aimed at limiting management’s ability to deploy strike-breakers. Media coverage was intense, and pressure mounted on the government. When the terrorist attack took place in Brussels, the Prime Minister appealed to the union to postpone the strike on “national security grounds.” Despite DIBP staff having no responsibility for airport security, which is managed by the Australian Federal Police, CPSU officials called off strike action for the whole of Easter as a gesture of “goodwill.”
Enter Fair Work Australia. The rolling stoppages resumed after Easter, but were soon paused when management appealed to Fair Work Australia to stop all industrial action for 3 months “on national security grounds!”
FWA made an interim order to pause all action while hearing the case. With the hearings now finalised, FWA had reserved its decision and left the interim order in place. The CPSU officials have no appetite to even discuss the prospect of bucking the system! So, at this writing, all action is on hold. Regardless of CPSU’s quiescence, FWA could issue a pro-management decision anyway, including terminating the bargaining period and referring the matter to arbitration, which would be a rotten outcome for workers.
The Fair Work Act is anything but fair. Introduced by the Rudd Labor Government in 2009, the act retains strict limits on the right to strike imposed by Prime Minister Keating in 1993. Prior to this, all industrial action was unprotected. Unionists took strike action, and—while employers were also free to pursue unions through the courts—the decision to do so was based on the balance of class forces. Unions rarely faced court action, especially when decisions were democratically made and well supported by members. Workers struck over pay, conditions and safety issues, in defence of union rights, around political, social and international questions and to support other workers.
In contrast, protected action is designed to strictly regulate when, why and in what circumstances unionists can take action. According to the rules, strike action can only be taken during an enterprise bargaining period, when negotiations have broken down and after the conduct of a ballot run by the state. It requires unions to give significant notice to employers before taking action.
Many union officials, including those who lead the CPSU, believe it is essential to comply with this legislation. They repeatedly tell workers they cannot take action unless authorised to do so under this onerous set of rules. But this is simply not true.
Bad laws are made to be broken. A look at history shows that when enough people are prepared to stand together to defy unfair restrictions, they can triumph. Not one strike in Australia prior to 1993 was “protected.” In 1969, more than a million unionists walked off the job after tramways leader Clarrie O’Shea was jailed. Workers struck in response to the sacking of the Whitlam government. In 1976, an ACTU-called national strike defended Medibank. The 1986 Victorian nurses’ strike and the massive strikes in the 1990s against Jeff Kennett’s savage selloffs are more examples.
Not all union officials are as compliant as the CPSU. It is precisely because some unions, such as the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), are willing to put the interests of building workers and the broader working class above the bosses’ that the government is going after this union. It is why all workers must defend CFMEU.
The Turnbull government wants to fight the upcoming election on the reintroduction of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) and passage of the Registered Organisations Act (ROA).
Both are thoroughly nasty pieces of anti-worker legislation.
The ABCC is aimed at breaking the CFMEU or, at least, rendering it ineffectual. Senator Cash is explicit when she states that she is going after the CFMEU “because they are militant, they don’t play by the rules.” The ABCC will have powers to prosecute the union for defying restrictions on the right to strike. The result will be unsafe building sites, more deaths and a steady erosion of hard-won conditions.
The ROA will increase government powers to spy and meddle in the affairs of unions through sweeping investigative powers, the ability to seize documents and a massive increase in penalties—including criminal—for union officials who don’t comply.
The goal of Cash, Turnbull and the entire anti-worker government, is to housebreak unions, tie them up in red tape and make those that survive utterly ineffectual. Union officials end up buying into this when they tell members that the only option is to comply with the law. They are doing workers a grave disservice. Unions are independent organisations for the defence of working people, not part of the capitalist state. When it comes to what actions unions can take, it is not a question of the law. It is a question of which class has more power. When broad layers of unionists are ready to stand together and take action, anything is possible.
One of the reasons that the government is able to get some traction with its rhetoric about “union bosses” is because there’s a lack of genuine democracy in many parts of the union movement. But it is not a Registered Organisations Commission that is required to make union officials accountable, it’s a healthy dose of union democracy. Unions need to be accountable to their members, not to the capitalist state! Mass meetings with full, open debate are crucial to genuinely assess what action workers are prepared to take—this includes defying bad laws.
Stand with CPSU members. Public sector-wide mass meetings are vital, where members decide strategy and map out a campaign capable of mobilising community solidarity to defeat the government’s bargaining framework. Building a groundswell of public support is critical.
Some on the Left have argued against supporting workers from DIBP and the ABF, purely based on opposition to government policies on immigrants and refugees. Of course, socialists should continue to oppose the bipartisan cruelty in the treatment of asylum seekers and argue for open borders so that workers can move freely around the globe in the same way capital does. But those who refuse to support striking frontline workers, who collect customs duties and process passengers at airports, based on their uniform and the government’s unconscionable policies are making a big mistake.
The CPSU is engaged in a hard battle that must be won in the interests of all workers. If the government is able to defeat its own workforce, this will affect all unionists—from early childhood educators demanding equal pay to retail and hospitality workers battling to hold on to penalty rates, and CFMEU members facing the return of a star chamber that would strip them of their most elementary democratic rights. The intractable position of Michaelia Cash, who is refusing to budge on the unfair bargaining framework, is a message to all unionists.
This government wants to drive down wages, cut services and slash public sector jobs, remove penalty rates, wind back working conditions and crush our ability to resist. By busting our unions, the government would remove the greatest source of resistance against all its assaults—on health, education and pensions, on the rights of First Nations, refugees, women and LGBTIQA people, on our climate and more— in order to make working people and the oppressed pay for capitalism’s crisis. This is behind Turnbull’s use of a double dissolution of Parliament to railroad the union-busting bills.
To fight back we need our unions. We need unions that are democratic, audacious and prepared to fight tooth and nail for the working class. To achieve this, unionists must be ready to defy the bad laws that already exist and stop those being proposed—whoever wins the 2016 election.
Issued by the Freedom Socialist Party
23 April 2016
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The Freedom Socialist Party is a Marxist feminist political party. Our members have been active in the CPSU for more than two decades in some of the largest departments. We are keen to hear from CPSU members and other unionists who would like to work with us around the ideas in this statement.
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