Union’s day of anger barely a mild annoyance

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday September 13, 2016

It can be tough for public sector unions to exert leverage in enterprise bargaining, especially at federal level where there’s no army of frontline nurses, firefighters and teachers to elicit public sympathy for the reasons behind service delivery interruptions.

But it must add insult to injury when the government’s central human resources office mocks your impassioned campaign of industrial action, as the Australian Service Commission has done this afternoon.

The Community and Public Service Union’s APS campaign is also hamstrung by the fact that employees bargain with their agency bosses while government ministers ultimately set the limits on pay and entitlements but refuse to come to the table. The 24-hour period of strike action that hit the Australian Public Service on Friday aimed to drag ministers into negotiations by targeting their offices with protests.

Now the APSC has called it a “flop” and said it “fell flat” in a media statement that suggests the industrial action caused little concern to the government because few unionists took part:

“In contrast to the predictions of the CPSU leadership the industrial action turned out to be subdued. Friday had lower participation than previous stoppages. The impact on services was minor.”

In the Department of Human Services, the biggest APS employer and a CPSU stronghold, 15% of staff amounting to over 5100 public servants stopped work and one site had to close, which is a weak result according to the APSC. In the 20,000-strong Australian Taxation Office, the participation rate was 3.7% and “there was no impact on services to clients”.

Participation in the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, and Australian Border Force was also below 4% and the APSC says there was a “low” impact on services. Just 36 of 2,400 employees from the Department of the Environment and Energy and 27 of 894 in the Department of Parliamentary Services joined their comrades at the barricades, according to the commission’s figures.

The statement also seems aimed at undermining the union’s recruitment and organising activities:

“Some union members must wonder why they are losing another day’s pay. The best course of action would be to engage in constructive bargaining to finalise enterprise agreements which offer pay rises for the next three years. The path of industrial action continuously fails to move the bargaining agenda one iota.”

Update: The CPSU has, of course, a very different take on Friday’s strike. A spokesperson described the DIBP result as a misleading “red herring” as members at the big department never intended to join the 24-hour strike. As we reported on the day, only a small number of DIBP staff took part, and the union explains they stopped work for three hours to join protests at ministerial offices.

National secretary Nadine Flood returned fire on Tuesday afternoon, saying thousands of CPSU members went on strike on Friday:

“I don’t know what the public service commissioner’s numbers are based on but there are more people in some of our social media photos than the total numbers he’s quoting. …

“The number this government can’t explain is why over 74,000 workers voted to reject these agreements in 2016 alone. Public sector workers strike and vote no to agreements not because the CPSU tells them to but because the agreements being pushed under the Turnbull government’s bargaining policy strip away workplace rights and conditions.

“John Lloyd is lecturing the CPSU, telling us to negotiate constructively, yet there is nowhere to negotiate given agencies can’t depart from government policy and neither Prime Minister Turnbull nor Minister Michaelia Cash will even agree to sit down and talk about how this impasse can be resolved.”

About the author