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Human Services stands firm as union asks for strike trigger

Staff at Medicare, Centrelink and other arms of the gigantic Department of Human Services could vote to go on strike.

And in a rare public comment from the bureaucracy, DHS general manager Hank Jongen has called some of the union claims in an increasingly bitter industrial dispute “outrageous” and stressed services will remain open if staff walk off the job.

“It is the CPSU that has effectively walked away from the bargaining process by initiating this action, and we will be exploring our options in this regard,” he said.

The Community and Public Sector Union applied to the Fair Work Commission today for approval to hold a ballot among its DHS members on the question of whether to take industrial action. Jongen says he’s “extremely disappointed” by the move.

If the application is successful, the commission will order a ballot take place within 25 days. Any industrial action CPSU members vote to take must be within 30 days of the ballot to be legally protected under the Fair Work Act, and the department must be notified three days in advance. The ballot will only succeed if a majority of members take part, which they can do online.

Only union members can vote and take part in protected industrial action, which could include work bans, stoppages or full-scale strikes. A CPSU bulletin to members explains:

“Consistent with member’s commitment to serve the public, particularly the most vulnerable members of our community, industrial action will be designed to have minimal impact on customers but send a strong message to the Government and DHS that they need to improve their position. Our activities will be well targeted and strategic, and may vary from place to place. By being smart, strategic and organised we know it is possible to get better outcomes for workers. Taking protected industrial action is a safe, legal and legitimate way to try and secure a better outcome.”

For the application to succeed, the Fair Work Commission must be satisfied that the CPSU has been “genuinely trying to reach agreement” with Human Services, following a hearing that should be held within 48 hours of the application, if practical.

CPSU secretary Nadine Flood says DHS staff are taking a stand against “one of the ugliest deals” the union had ever seen put on the table by a government entity. She said in a statement:

“They are being asked to accept a deal that would strip away important rights, make it easier for staff to be made redundant, and remove protections around their super, all for a pay offer that is way below the cost of living.”

The union blames the Abbott government for restricting the offers Commonwealth entities can make in negotiations over new workplace agreements, which have begun in about 70 agencies. Out of those, none has been able to present an offer considered reasonable by the unions. Flood blames Eric Abetz, the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service, for “forcing agencies to strip conditions from workplace agreements and cut workplace rights in exchange for pay offers of between 0% and 1% a year”.

The CPSU is portraying the looming strikes as a last resort in the face of an intransigent government. Flood said:

“DHS continues to tell us that they can’t offer staff anything other than cuts to rights and conditions. Meanwhile Minister Abetz is refusing to acknowledge his bargaining position is unworkable and won’t even meet with us.”

‘Outrageous’ claims by the CPSU

In a statement to the media, Hank Jongen said it is “outrageous” to suggest the department has walked away from bargaining:

“As the CPSU is well aware, we are in the process of reviewing all the feedback we’ve received from our staff and bargaining representatives, including the CPSU, on our working draft agreement. This is consistent with our obligations under the Fair Work Act 2009

“We were one of the first Australian government agencies to initiate bargaining discussions and to put a pay offer and draft agreement to bargaining representatives and our staff for comment. We are therefore disappointed that the CPSU claims we’re stalling. This is not true. The CPSU is seeking to frighten the community with this course of action and their dishonest claims.

“We still hope to have a draft agreement for our staff to consider as soon as possible.”

Abetz claims the CPSU has “already prevented DHS employees from potentially sharing in a $62 million general pay increase. A statement provided to The Mandarin said:

“These employees have also been the target of a dishonest and discredited campaign by the CPSU and Labor on superannuation, casual employees, call centres, documents storage and Medicare IT systems. Now the CPSU wants employees to take strike action in support of its unsustainable claim for a 12% pay rise.

“It will be DHS employees who bear the cost of any such action through loss of pay, not the CPSU bosses. DHS employees should be cognisant of this when considering whether to take strike action.

“The CPSU should abandon its excessive 12% pay claim, which is unsustainable and out of line with community expectations, and which will cost at least 10,000 jobs across the public service.”

Jongen said health and welfare payments won’t be disrupted by any industrial action:

“I want to reassure the community that the department will remain open for business, and that it has robust processes in place to ensure the delivery of health and welfare payments in the event of industrial action by union members.”

The union has not detailed specific goals for any industrial action beyond forcing DHS to come back to the table with “a sensible deal”, but it is clear that the giant department, where the CPSU is strongest, is a key battleground in what could become a protracted industrial war.

Workplace agreements covering more than 100 Commonwealth agencies expired on June 30, and the CPSU says its ranks have swelled by more than 4000 since May.

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.