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Together, public servants can lift this bargaining trainwreck


Nadine Flood

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.

47 comments so far

  • I would have thought that a part time working mother being offered up to 52 hours per month extra work would jump at the opportunity. The train analogy is good though. The greedy, politically motivated (wait their turn for a safe Labor seat) union bosses in this country will ensure that the wreckage caused by their self interest will bring down most of their members and see them unemployed completely. How about the abolition of the generous PPL scheme to which the public servants are entitled. Isn't the Government scheme of 18 weeks on minimum wage good enough?. Oh I see, you want to claim both

    Date and time
    August 29, 2014, 12:24PM
    • @Gassius: Most working mothers are already constrained on the number of hours they can work by childcare availability issues. Many parents don't choose to be part-time and are already working the maximum number of hours they can.
      So when the hourly rate drops off the back of extended full-time hours combined with only part of the pay rise that would make the difference, she goes backwards in dollars to her bank account.
      Kinda not cool.

      A place where people actually care.
      Date and time
      August 29, 2014, 1:06PM
    • That's 52 extra hours with no extra pay. Yeah, jump at the chance.

      Date and time
      August 29, 2014, 1:11PM
    • I was in a similar situation in the private sector once.

      Hours were cut from 40 to 37. But hourly rate stayed the same, so a 7.5% pay cut.

      And I was expected to do 7 hours unpaid overtime instead of 2 - so hours worked increased.
      Overtime after that was compensated by "Time Off In Lieu" when the company found it convenient to grant it. They never did of course.

      Eventually you realise they're relying on your professional ethics not to let customers down in order to treat you like a mug. It's your own fault, at least in part, if you allow this.

      Reality mugs you, and your former unsympathetic view of Unions changes when you realise the culture has changed, there's no longer a partnership of mutual benefit, but a destructive adversarial relationship now. Maybe the pushback will administer some "aversion therapy" to policy makers so a saner, more efficient system will prevail again.

      And if not - they can go take a running jump.

      Zoe Brain
      Date and time
      August 29, 2014, 2:52PM
    • Are the 'self entitled union bosses' as compared to public service secretaries who have their workers interests, rather than their own temporary tenures at heart?

      Date and time
      August 30, 2014, 2:39AM
    • An extra 52 hrs a month without penalty rates, why would she jump at the chance, any small gain by working them for base rate, would be overtaken in childcare fees, she would most likely lose money by the exercise, gee that would be smart wouldn't it, but rusty Liberals don't look at the big picture, just dollar signs, and how much profit can be made at the exspence of workers wages and conditions.

      Date and time
      August 30, 2014, 9:26AM
    • The extending of the time without penalty rates is so those that man the phones until Perth closes dont have a financial benefit over those that do the Eastern States. I see it as fair and sensible. Its not like they are working harder, in fact they are working less as for 3 hrs of their shift they have no phone calls from the most populated states,

      Date and time
      September 03, 2014, 10:09AM
  • @Gassius - It is more work, with no extra money. Why would anyone want that?

    Date and time
    August 29, 2014, 1:14PM
    • @Gassius: Well said @TimTim. Gassius get a clue. PPL in this country has not gone far enough to overcome the long-term career and financial disadvantage that women suffer as a result of starting a family (which, btw, is in the national economic interest). Why would you support going backwards on a condition that is already lagging behind more astute countries. Simply because (it sounds like) you don’t currently have access to something similar isn’t a reason to race to the bottom (something this Government is eager to do in most arenas). It should be an incentive to join the fight that’s advocating for improvements to be made.
      Don’t denounce the union movement based on the over sensationalised media coverage of the misconduct of a few. Unionism has been and still is the most effective tool for restoring balance to the imbalanced employer-employee relationship. The collegiate work environment that is encouraged by this restoration of balance improves retention and engagement, opens up lines of communication (and let’s face it crap ideas only happen when they’re not discussed), increases respect and, at the end of the day, leads to improved productivity.

      standing beside @TimTIm
      Date and time
      August 29, 2014, 1:44PM
      • the extra 52 hours per month could be any time between 7 am and 8 pm
        People don't take pay cuts and work part time for fun
        There are childcare responsibilities
        Caring responsibilities for looking after elderly parents
        Mature aged workers with health issues, imagine working an 11 hour day well into your sixties
        Remember what happens in the public service is the testing ground for the whole of Australia

        The only ones with the perks will be the politicians, huge pay rises, access to their super as soon as they leave politics etc etc

        Date and time
        August 29, 2014, 1:57PM

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