National

Civil disobedience at Centrelink, Medicare

Public servants at the government's largest department plan to flout office dress codes and ignore their bosses' emails and phone calls as well as taking traditional strike action over a bitter pay dispute.

Deal  sought: CPSU National Secretary Nadine Flood says the government needs to come up with a 'sensible deal' for DHS ...
Deal sought: CPSU National Secretary Nadine Flood says the government needs to come up with a 'sensible deal' for DHS workers. Photo: David Tease

Bosses at the Department of Human Services branded union rhetoric "outrageous" on Thursday after the CPSU lodged its application for protected action at the Fair Work Commission, alleging the department had walked away from wage talks five weeks ago.

The campaign of industrial disobedience might also include "re-queuing or transferring customers" or defying scheduled break times, as well as disrupting $150 billion in Centrelink payments and $29 billion the department pays out through Medicare and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

The commission will hear arguments from both sides of the dispute in Sydney on Friday afternoon but department spokesman Hank Jongen reacted angrily on Thursday, saying he was outraged by the union's claims of the department walking away from talks.

"We are extremely disappointed the CPSU has chosen to start this process," Mr Jongen said.

"It is outrageous to suggest that the department has walked away from bargaining.

"As the CPSU is well aware, we are in the process of reviewing all the feedback we've received from our staff and bargaining representatives, including the CPSU, on our working draft [enterprise] agreement. 

"It is the CPSU that has effectively walked away from the bargaining process by initiating this action, and we will be exploring our options in this regard."

CPSU National Secretary Nadine Flood said on Thursday morning that the plan for industrial action was a "last resort" in the face of a nasty attack on the workplace rights of public servants.

"This government's nasty attack on workers' rights is bad for staff and bad for the millions of Australians who rely on these services," Ms Flood said.

"Any industrial action is designed to send a clear message to the government and DHS that they need to come up with a sensible deal so staff can get on with the job of serving our community."

Public service minister Eric Abetz joined in the attack on the union on Thursday, with his office supplying a statement accusing the CPSU of a "dishonest campaign" and warning rank-and-file departmental workers to vote "no" if a strike ballot was held.

"The CPSU wants employees to take strike action in support of its unsustainable claim for a 12 per cent pay rise," the statement from the minister said.

"It will be DHS employees who bear the cost of any such action through loss of pay, not the CPSU bosses.

"DHS employees should be cognisant of this when considering whether to take strike action."

The dispute between the department and its 30,000 workers has been escalating since management put a below-inflation pay offer on the table in July, worth at most 1.15 per cent a year.

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The proposal would also strip rights and conditions out of the department's enterprise bargaining agreement and require its public servants to work longer hours each week.

Department bosses dropped a plan to hold a snap ballot on the proposal a few days later in the face of angry opposition in its workplaces, with management blaming union intransigence and negotiations have been stalled ever since.

The escalating dispute is being keenly watched across the 160,000-strong Australian Public Service with Human Services the only major department to have made a concrete pay offer to its workers.

More than 116 departmental and agency workplace agreements expired in June but negotiations are stalled with bosses unable to come up with "productivity gains" tough enough to satisfy the Abbott government's hardline public sector industrial policies.