Strike day: Immigration, Defence, Environment, ATO walk out

By Stephen Easton

Monday March 21, 2016

A massive co-ordinated strike today by union members across the Australian public service escalates the service-wide enterprise bargaining dispute that has dragged on for more than two years.

The government’s position has softened only very slightly over that time, and ministers appear to have been largely unfazed by previous industrial action or the threat of more.

A 24-hour strike by Community and Public Service Union members in 13 agencies today will be followed up tomorrow by their aggrieved comrades in the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, and its operational arm, Australian Border Force.

International and domestic airport terminals will be targeted by employees of DIBP and the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources “over the Easter school holidays and beyond” through action that will include another full 24-hour strike, the union said.

In the union’s favour, some of its most unhappy members are ABF workers, particularly those posted to remote locations, as well as frontline staff in the Department of Human Services, where union membership is relatively high and service delivery issues have occurred irrespective of industrial unrest.

Other action will affect ministers more directly than the public, but it is unlikely the government will let the public see any frustration caused by striking bureaucrats. The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet is among the agencies affected but Malcolm Turnbull chose to remain above the fray as he staked his government on an even bigger industrial relations play.

The PM said he had no part in the negotiations and refused to comment on the strikes at a press conference today, in which he delivered an ultimatum to the Senate over stalled legislation to re-establish the union-busting Australian Building and Construction Commission. According to the union:

“Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has ignored the CPSU’s requests for urgent talks to fix his government’s bargaining mess, leaving the union with no choice but to proceed with the strikes.”

Staff are also walking off the job today in the Department of Defence, Department of the Environment and the Australian Taxation Office, as well as the Bureau of Meteorology, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Department of Parliamentary Services, GeoScience Australia, IP Australia, the Australian Synchrotron and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

On Friday the union advised its members not to tell managers they intended to join the strike until just before they would normally start work. If asked ahead of time, CPSU members were advised to say they hadn’t decided, to maximise the impact of the action.

While the strict APS-wide bargaining policy limits pay rises and demands offsets such as longer working hours, the heart of the dispute is around various other workplace rights.

The government demands a range of conditions are taken out of enterprise agreements to make them shorter and simpler, and is adamant that no public servant’s workplace rights are being taken away as they would remain in departmental policy. Unions point out that internal policy can change at any time and is not legally protected in the same way as an EBA.

While some departments have accepted new agreements negotiated under the Coalition government’s strict conditions, the CPSU says more than 80% of the service still has yet to vote in favour, effectively freezing their pay since the dispute began.

“Repeated strike action is tough on families, particularly after a two-year wage freeze,” CPSU national secretary Nadine Flood said, “which is why we have our campaign fund to crowd-fund financial support, particularly for those Border Force officers who’ve bravely remained on the front line in this dispute.”

Not all public servants are on board with the union. Just as some Fairfax journalists didn’t participate in the major media company’s recent strike and endured jeers from unionists, some bureaucrats are happy to be labelled “scabs”.

UPDATE: The Australian Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd has issued a statement in response to the planned airport strikes.

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