Shouting 'Scab!' is not allowed, commissioner warns ahead of APS strikes

By Stephen Easton

April 13, 2017

The Community and Public Sector Union has announced another fortnight of strikes and other industrial action by its members in the Department of Human Services over the Easter and Anzac Day holidays, and the public service commissioner will be taking note of any rude words they might shout.

The union told DHS its members in Medicare, Centrelink and the Child Support Agency would “strike extensively” from today until April 26 to demand the department maintain “their existing workplace rights” in its enterprise bargaining proposals.

“The action will also be of longer duration than other recent strikes, with the exception of April 13th,” according to the CPSU. “On all other days strike action has been notified between 7am and 8.30pm.”

We’re not sure if any of the CPSU members working at DHS would have taken much notice, but Australian Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd issued some timely advice for public servants joining protected industrial action at the end of March.

Strikes and other forms of workplace protest all have to be specifically approved by the Fair Work Commission to be legal, but that also means those specific actions are legally “protected” and they can’t be said to have violated the code of conduct.

“But other forms of behaviour associated with that action can be subject to the Code,” the APSC explains, which means jeering as non-union staff go into the office is not allowed (unless one can somehow do it in a respectful and courteous way).

“To show how this can work, an employee might be standing in a picket line outside a building as part of protected industrial action. That does not give that employee permission to abuse colleagues who cross the picket line by calling them scabs.

“As an APS employee, the obligation to treat people with respect and courtesy remains even when you are participating in protected industrial action.”

The pointed memo also reminds public servants that “claiming a sick day for when you were actually on strike, or lying about whether you were participating in a work ban” are probably also breaches of the code. The APSC thinks such “bad behaviour” is likely to result from union activity because “emotions can run hot” when organised employees protest against their bosses.

‘Attacks on DHS have caused serious damage’

On the other hand, some might see the missive as an attack against the legitimacy of unions that deliberately perpetuates the image of their members as a bunch of foul-mouthed liars, which most public servants are not.

“Our team has worked tirelessly trying to negotiate through this mess with DHS management,” said CPSU national secretary Nadine Flood in a statement today.

“Those talks are ongoing and are currently being overseen by the Fair Work Commission, but there’s been no movement from DHS’s bosses or in fact any sign whatsoever that they actually want to resolve this. DHS stands out as we make slow but steady progress at other Commonwealth agencies.”

Flood said the CPSU fully expected to cause “significant disruption to the department” with the strikes and would once again be trying to rally public support behind its members, by pointing to the government as the source of any added frustration.

She said the extremely long-running dispute was about workers trying to retain “rights and conditions that have been in place for many years and allow them to balance their working and family lives” and suggested DHS was an “agency in crisis” already.

“The Turnbull government’s attacks on DHS have caused serious damage, with 36 million phone calls going unanswered last year, 5,000 permanent jobs slashed and this bargaining mess,” said Flood. “Resolving bargaining would be an important first stepping to getting this agency back on track.”

But if dealing with Centrelink, Medicare and Child Support is so frustrating already, one wonders if anybody will notice the effects of the strikes?

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