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

Do federal bureaucrats have the industrial firepower to force the Abbott government to soften its strict enterprise bargaining policy? Whether the measures workers can take will have any impact at all has been questioned, and stronger actions could backfire in the court of public opinion.

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.

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