Public service strike aims to drag ministers into enterprise bargaining

By Stephen Easton

September 9, 2016

Federal government members of the Community and Public Sector Union are on strike again, trying to force ministers to step into Australian Public Service negotiations, while their fellow members at the ABC are voting on whether to take their own industrial action.

Thousands of public servants are taking part in Friday’s 24-hour strike, which involves protests at the offices of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull as well as other ministers and members of the government.

A large group from the giant service delivery conglomerate that is the Department of Human Services has been joined by contingents from other agencies that have yet to sign new agreements. They include the Australian Taxation Office, Department of Defence, Bureau of Meteorology, Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

According to the union, waiting times for transactions in person or over the phone with DHS agencies like Centrelink, Medicare and the Child Support Agency will increase as a result, but they will also take their message directly to ministers including Peter Dutton, Michaelia Cash, Nigel Scullion, Christopher Pyne and Josh Frydenberg.

The extraordinary dispute has resulted in an effective pay freeze for large numbers of staff since the Coalition came to power three years ago and issued new guidelines that strictly limit what agencies can offer employees in enterprise bargaining.

As such, the CPSU’s action is mainly aimed at the government rather than agency bosses themselves, whose hands are tied by the service-wide policy. Beyond minor concessions, some of the biggest agencies — notably DHS and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection — have consistently been unable to present offers their staff will accept.

Still no direct talks with ministers

“We started bargaining with this Government in late 2013 but around 100,000 Commonwealth public sector workers still don’t have new enterprise agreements, despite these workers’ ongoing willingness to talk and compromise,” CPSU national secretary Nadine Flood said on Friday.

“The buck absolutely stops with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the minister responsible, Michaelia Cash, yet they still won’t even talk let alone abandon their harsh and counter-productive attack on critical workplace rights and conditions.”

But despite staff working under both the PM and his deputy Barnaby Joyce taking part in the 24-hour strike, there are no signs that the ministry is any more willing to negotiate directly or soften their stance.

The strict guidelines conveniently allow the government, the ultimate employer of the APS, to dictate the boundaries of any new agreements offered to its employees while refusing to sit down with the unions that represent them. Private sector employers might soon get envious, seeing how traditional union tactics have proven only mildly effective in this context.

The impasse does not appear to worry the ministers, whose objective of restraining public service pay rises is neatly achieved through the deadlock. But while the rhetoric of austerity can be convincing at state level, where public sector staffing takes up a huge chunk of the budget, it is more of an ideological argument at federal level, where APS pay has a negligible impact on the bottom line.

Flood says the CPSU fight is not so much about pay as about keeping “basic workplace rights and conditions, particularly family-friendly rights that let [public servants] do their job while dropping their kids off at school or day-care”.

“They’re willing to endorse a sensible solution but see nothing to gain in giving up those rights for 1% a year under the Turnbull Government’s unreasonable and unworkable public sector bargaining policy,” she said.

‘Low participation’ in strikes

The government, supported strongly by Australian Public Service commissioner John Lloyd, has consistently argued the union has made agreements impossible because its claims are unreasonable.

“I believe the CPSU is doing its members a disservice by continuing to agitate for unrealistic pay outcomes in a constrained fiscal environment,” Lloyd said this week. “Industrial action orchestrated by the CPSU has had a low participation rate and results in loss of income to those participating.”

The commission has previously noted that low inflation of late has meant that APS pay has gone up in real terms for the 57 agencies that have taken up new offers under the current regime — whose total staff members still represent a minority of the APS.

“Employees in agencies that have voted up their enterprise agreements are moving ahead in the knowledge that future pay rises are settled and a jointly supported enterprise agreement is in place. Many are about to receive their second pay rise,” the commissioner said.

Flood claims history shows the stalemate is not the CPSU’s fault, as it has never had such a long dispute, regardless of which party was in power. She urged Turnbull and Cash to “follow the lead set by successful major employers” and consider relaxing their enterprise bargaining policy.

While most are not on strike today, CPSU members in Immigration and Australian Border Force are no closer to agreement either, so it might not be long before they are back at the barricades at airports in much larger numbers.

Meanwhile CPSU members in the ABC are “furious” at their employer’s approach to enterprise bargaining as well, according to their delegate, and are heading towards strikes and other industrial action of their own with members of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance not far behind.

The national broadcaster’s management is not constrained by the APS bargaining policy and would receive 20 days’ notice of any industrial action, if ABC workers vote in favour of it.

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