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DHS and Australia’s largest union vote — what happens now?

The almost 15,000 Department of Human Services staff members who belong to the Community and Public Sector Union now have until November 17 to vote on whether to take industrial action.

The Fair Work Commission gave the go-ahead to the protected action ballot in a hearing yesterday, opening a 25-working-day window to complete the process. Whatever the results, a majority of DHS members must take part in the vote for them to be valid.

Only union members can vote or take part in protected industrial action, and only actions that get a “yes” from the majority are allowed. The nine yes-or-no questions ask if CPSU members want to protest through bans or limitations on adhering to dress standards, answering phones, responding to voicemails or emails or working outside normal hours. Subsequent questions float options for bans or restrictions on other kinds of work, and members might also agree to take breaks earlier or later than scheduled.

Other actions could include members reading a statement from the CPSU to clients or customers, or providing one in written letters, emails, auto-reply messages or voicemails — allowing the union to take its message to the public via communication systems managed by service providers like Medicare or Centrelink.

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Any industrial action agreed to must begin within 30 days of the ballot being declared to be legally protected under the Fair Work Act, unless the commission extends this period. Normally the employer must be notified of each action three days in advance, but in this case the commission ruled the CPSU must inform DHS at least five days before any refusal to answer phone calls in contact centres, or any stoppages lasting longer than an hour.

Protected action ballots are usually conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission, in which case the Commonwealth picks up the tab. But in this case, the massive DHS ballot is being run by private agent The Election Company, leaving the union with the bill. It will be the largest electronic protected action ballot ever held in Australia.

The department is required to provide The Election Company with a list of all employees who would be covered by the proposed enterprise agreement by 4pm on Thursday, and the CPSU must provide a list of members eligible for the vote by the same deadline.

According to the CPSU, it has chosen to spend its own money because the electoral commission does not run electronic ballots at all. The AEC only has the capability to run such ballots by postal vote, which the union felt was impractical for about 15,000 members spread over more than 600 locations.

In this this dispute, both sides say the other walked away from the negotiations. The department said on Friday its actions in the recent bargaining process have been consistent with its obligations under the Fair Work Act. Spokesman Hank Jongen said claims it was “stalling” were not true and that it was the CPSU which had “effectively walked away from the bargaining process by initiating this action”.

The decision by the Fair Work Commission to grant consent for a protected action ballot indicates it is satisfied that the CPSU was “genuinely trying to reach agreement” with the employer before it applied to hold the ballot.

The escalation at DHS comes after the CPSU’s governing council recently resolved to step up its campaign across the entire Australian public service because its industrial officers were finding agencies with limited room to negotiate, due to the Abbott government’s revised enterprise bargaining policy.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that the ballot closes on November 7. It should have said November 17.

More at The Mandarin: Human Services stands firm as union asks for strike trigger

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.