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Showdown at Human Services: protest action still being considered

Following the conclusion of a protected action ballot, about 15,000 members of the Community and Public Sector Union at the Department of Human Services now have nine ways to pressure their employer for a better deal.

Those who made their views known in the massive electronic ballot agreed to all possible options. Averaged across the nine questions, 95% of votes fell in the “yes” column.

A CPSU spokesperson told The Mandarin the first action could be expected within the next month. What form it will take is to be announced “shortly”.

Taking industrial action in the public sector is always a tricky game, requiring workers to be creative in how they agitate for a better deal to minimise the impact on the community. In this case, the union believes they have struck the right balance.

In a pre-emptive strike two weeks ago, Employment Minister and public service overseer Eric Abetz dusted off the government’s best weapon in the war of words: the suggestion vital services like Centrelink, child support and Medicare rebate payments will be disrupted “in the lead-up to Christmas”. The union, of course, rejects the suggestion, which Abetz repeated this week after the ballot result was announced.

The department must now wait to see what it is up against. Notification must come at least three days before action hits, and five days for anything related to call centres, or stoppages that last longer than an hour.

Staff may also place a ban on “performing work that is on hand until work that is overdue or aged past its KPI has been actioned”, completing tasks on a first-in, first-served basis instead of according to normal priorities. According to the union, this will have little effect on clients, but will send a message to the government by disrupting internal performance management data.

Explaining the object of possible bans on “re-queuing or transferring customers” in call centres, the spokesperson said:

“Our members will resolve all customer issues at the first point of contact rather than transfer people around the department as DHS directs staff to do now. People will not have to wait in calls queues over and over again to get their needs met.”

Another possible work ban, on “using auxiliary codes in computer/telephone operating systems”, aims to stick it to management in a more high-tech version of refusing to sign a time sheet, according to the CPSU:

“All call centre and processing staff work in a highly scheduled environment. The department uses special computer codes to monitor everything staff do including going to the toilet. Our members will not be using these codes which means senior executives in Canberra can’t produce their monthly reports.”

While Abetz has talked up the possible impact on vulnerable people, the department has moved to reassure the public that its business continuity processes are robust enough to keep the payments going “without disruption” — even if staff walk off the job.

DHS has also maintained the line that negotiations are still going on and it is the CPSU that pulled the pin, a claim the union also disputes.

According to the rules it operates under, the Fair Work Commission would not have allowed the protected action ballot to go ahead if it was not satisfied the CPSU was “genuinely trying to reach agreement” with the department before the situation escalated.

More at The Mandarin: DHS and Australia’s largest union vote — what happens now?

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.