Strength in unity: Perth commuters push against a train to free a passenger’s trapped leg.

Strength in unity: Perth commuters push against a train to free a passenger’s trapped leg. Photo: WA Public Transport Authority

With each passing day, it is increasingly clear that the Abbott government has picked a substantial fight with its own workforce. About 165,000 employees face a full-frontal attack on their rights, job protections, conditions and real wages. The government's extreme bargaining policy has forced agencies to take an uncompromising stance, proposing agreements that strip existing rights, cut conditions and offer very low pay rises.

Agencies know as well as unions do that this is a bridge too far. Many agencies are reluctant to lead the charge in bargaining. For those that have, we face a surreal situation where agency negotiators are told to push positions that they know are untenable, while managers are told to go out and sell to employees the equivalent of turkeys voting for Christmas.

Ever since the Community and Public Sector Union served a log of claims on the government late last year, we have been ready to bargain. Yet, to date, only one agency, the Department of Human Services, has come close to putting a proposed agreement to a staff vote, which it has since delayed.

The department's proposal strips employees of basic conditions and rights, cuts existing entitlements and makes a pay offer lower than a limbo stick. When you speak to a part-time working mother in Centrelink or Medicare who faces losing flextime, working up to 52 hours extra a month (without overtime), a cut in her hourly wages and possibly a 5.9 per cent cut in her super contribution, you see just how ugly this agenda is. Her job security is also shakier, with employment and redeployment protections stripped out. Oh, and all for a pay rise of 0.4 to 1.15 per cent a year.

The DHS's plan to take this to a vote would have surely resulted in a massive rejection. Staff have not held back from giving management feedback: a recent staged "interview" between the department's chief negotiator and its general manager attracted a record 2400 comments on the agency's internal website (and they were not complimentary).

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The Abbott government's bargaining policy bears no resemblance to a modern approach to workplace relations. Unlike the rest of the world, Employment Minister Eric Abetz defines productivity as cutting employee conditions, hourly wages and classifications for so-called "measurable savings". Pay less for less. None of the myriad changes in the public sector that can actually improve the quality of services and policy advice for the community have a place in this bizarre, alternative industrial universe.

Agencies are either unable to come up with an ugly-enough proposal that fully complies with the policy or are unwilling to serve up to their staff a set of nasties that they know staff must reject. This goes some way to explain the slow progress across the APS in bargaining.

And the pain and uncertainty seems set to continue. Unions have been ready to negotiate since late last year but there appears to be no settlement in sight. This is having a detrimental effect on public servants, who are trying to get on with their jobs against a backdrop of 16,500 job cuts. The situation also stands to worsen already battered morale. Smart employers know that kicking your workforce is not the way to improve their capacity to deliver great work.

The proposal to strip rights that are protected in enterprise agreements is a serious concern for staff. One example is removing the 15.4 per cent employer superannuation contribution. Taking it out would allow the government to drop super to as low as 9.5per cent. Finance Minister Mathias Cormann could then change the rules governing the main public servants' super fund, the PSSap, with Abetz telling agencies to change the rate by policy. Public servants are rightly asking: why would we give the government the capacity to cut our rights via policy change at any time? No thanks, we will keep our protections.

Cormann has done little to alleviate concerns, preferring instead to accuse the CPSU of "baseless scaremongering". Without a hint of irony, Abetz has deployed a similar tactic, accusing us of "scaring" workers into joining the union. Forgive me if I point out the obvious to Abetz and his colleagues: we are not the ones who are scaring people.

But staff are not just scared: they are insulted and determined to protect their hard-won rights and conditions. And they are acting to do so: 3700 people have joined our union since the federal budget, more than one-third of those in the DHS alone. Staff are joining because they are confronted with the ugly reality of the government's extreme agenda and realise they must back the effort to take it on.

That groundswell of opposition will gather strength as public servants realise what they are up against if this government gets its way: a world where there are few protections against arbitrary and harsh policies, where their living standards at work and in retirement can fall, and where they can be thrown on the scrap heap far too easily.

The CPSU's groundwork over the past three years has prepared members, who are digging in for a tough industrial fight. Alongside that work, we are advocating on behalf of quality public services and jobs in the public and political domain. And we have growing alliances with many groups across the community concerned by this government's cuts.

This government is good at picking fights. It is less clear whether it has a viable strategy to win them. We offered the government genuine, sensible negotiations. Instead, it decided to attack aggressively. At present, APS agency heads have no power to make reasonable offers. It is now up to staff to join, back each other and act together to pressure the government to move. 

Our strategy relies on public sector workers understanding the power they have. Just as hundreds of train commuters in Perth last month pushed a train off a poor bloke by working together, hundreds of thousands of public servants acting together in their union can change what governments do as employers. With your rights pinned under it, this is one train worth lifting.

Nadine Flood is the Community and Public Sector Union's national secretary.