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APS union campaign escalates, but does it have the firepower to win?

The union campaign to force a change in the Abbott government’s efficiency-linked enterprise bargaining policy is ramping up but despite a couple of minor victories, it’s not clear if it has the leverage to achieve its primary goal.

Starting from today, the Department of Agriculture’s biosecurity officers working in airports and ports joined frontline Department of Human Services staff in ten days of brief strikes and partial work bans that represents an escalation of the current campaign. Action is also either planned or underway at the Defence, Veterans’ Affairs, Environment and Employment departments as well as Geoscience Australia, CSIRO and the Australian Institute of Criminology.

Agriculture staff will stop work for half an hour at 10.30am this Thursday, as well as distributing flyers and reading statements to tens of thousands of travellers over the coming Easter weekend, according to the Community and Public Sector Union, of which many APS employees are members. Their Human Services comrades will all take their breaks at 12.30pm for the next two weeks, which the CPSU expects will have “a significant impact on already-stretched face-to-face and phone interactions with customers”.

While some public servants wield significant industrial power — mostly those employed at state level in Australia — the extraordinarily protracted current round of enterprise bargaining in the Commonwealth demonstrates some of the unique challenges of taking collective action in any government. Public opinion is a key factor and as the CPSU’s latest missive emphasises, members of the public are not the target but they are likely to be caught in the crossfire.

“We would strongly advise people to take extra time in travelling and avoid calling or visiting Centrelink or Medicare during this period,” national secretary Nadine Flood said today in a media release that typifies the argument public sector unions must often advance publicly: that any inconvenience caused by their actions is the indirect fault of an unreasonable government.

The union has taken comfort in two small concessions. The government has stopped resisting superannuation being included in enterprise agreements, and APS commissioner John Lloyd said last week that productivity gains required to offset payrises did not necessarily have to be defined dollar amounts. But industrial action does not appear to have caused much concern at the ministerial level, or for Lloyd, so far.

Public sector human resources and industrial relations expert Sue Williamson sees those concessions as only a slight shift, and says it’s hard to predict how the campaign will end.

[pullquote] “… it’s quite good for the government at the moment, because effectively it’s a wage freeze for public servants.” [/pullquote]

“[Negotiating enterprise agreements is] always difficult in the public service but this bargaining round is particularly protracted and slow,” Williamson told The Mandarin. “Some agencies have been negotiating for about 16 months and not a single one’s got an agreement up yet. … I’m not sure how it’s going to play out. I think there probably will need to be escalation of industrial action, the same as last time, for the government to shift a bit.”

“But you know,” she points out, “it’s quite good for the government at the moment, because effectively it’s a wage freeze for public servants.”

At this point it seems unlikely the government will back down and significantly change its bargaining policy, and while unions are keen to return to the negotiating table, they might have to wait for a Labor victory at the next election to get an offer they will agree to.

The UNSW Canberra School of Business lecturer says existing public opinions also affect the relative industrial power of different types of public servants, not just the way people see the current action. Nurses, for example, have a shining public image that helps their cause, but for many in the APS, not so much.

“I think that while there are a lot of union members in the Australian Public Service, it’s difficult for them to have industrial power because they don’t have the same sort of public image as the state public servants do,” she said. “We know, for example, that employees in the Tax Office are really unhappy with the deal that’s been put to them… but it’s really hard for the union to get public support behind tax collectors.”

Flood made the same point at a breakfast debate last week in which the union leader squared off with new APS Commissioner John Lloyd.

“And I think it’s been borne out before this bargaining round as well,” Williamson added. “With employees at the Department of Human Services, while we know that those services are really essential and we all rely on Medicare and the other service delivery and welfare agencies, they also don’t have a good public image. A lot of people hate going into Centrelink and having to claim their benefits.”

At the debate, Lloyd was adamant the government would stick to its guns, and repeated the message that there is a budget problem which can only be fixed by everyone, including public servants, tightening their belts. But Williamson points out the confused narrative of the government, which now says its budget crisis is under control, makes the austerity message a hard sell. She says the question some of the public are likely to ask is: “If there’s no budget crisis, does there need to be austerity in the public service, or is it just an ideological position of the government?”

As Flood also pointed out during the debate, paying public servants only takes about 6% of the federal budget, so a difference of a few percentage points in payrises has little effect on the national deficit and a large effect on individual pay packets. Williamson says the consensus among a large number of respected international academics in her field, who attended a recent two-day symposium at the university, was that generally speaking, “austerity is … dressed up as being economic policy when in fact, it’s just government ideology of trying to cut public sector wages and conditions”.

The biosecurity workers who have just joined the federal campaign can apply significant pressure, as they did by disrupting ports and airports together with Customs staff in 2011. “At the time, the managers said they covered all the people who were on strike so they said there wasn’t any impact,” Williamson recalled, “but I think that those workers do have industrial power, because what they do is really essential.”

On the other hand, people working in policy agencies have very low industrial power, she adds. Precisely because public opinion is largely indifferent to their mostly unseen work, it can’t swing around to their side. That leaves them to try to turn the screws on their bosses directly, often through partial work bans where certain kinds of work — answering letters from the minister, for example — can only be done by non-union members, or the one-minute strikes Defence employees have called in the past. This kind of action, also used by the CPSU’s current campaign, generally has little effect on service delivery but ties up human resources sections with calculating the exact percentage of pay to be deducted.

“It’s almost easier to take strikes, but then people don’t want to take strikes, because they don’t like to lose pay and it’s seen as a really drastic step,” Williamson said.

Staff from the New South Wales shared services agency ServiceFirst, who struck last week, hope these kinds of brief back-office slowdowns and public campaigning will force the government to reconsider privatising their jobs. Department of Employment union members recently got the green light from Fair Work Australia to do the same, after 95% of all employees rejected a pay deal put to them late last year.

The need to carefully court the people who will inevitably be caught in the middle means public sector industrial action commonly focuses heavily on reading, emailing and handing out lots of messages to lots of people. This feature of the current campaign has attracted derision from more radical members of the broad labour movement, but the kind of actions that truly paralyse the government are rare with good reason.

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.