By Nick Everett
BRISBANE — Community and Public Sector Union members in Centrelink, the federal government's new service delivery agency, struck for two hours on September 24. In response, the agency's new chief executive officer, Sue Vardon, advised all staff in a televised announcement that she would pursue a non-union agreement with staff and suspend access to facilities for union delegates while the industrial action continued.
The industrial action, which coincided with the formal launch of Centrelink, was voted on by CPSU members after 12 weeks of negotiations over a new agency agreement. The previous agreement, covering employees of the Department of Social Security, expired on June 30.
The federal government is now seeking to wind back a wide range of employment conditions in the corporatised agency. This includes increasing opening hours (including public holidays), reducing client-free time and leave entitlements and replacing pay rises with bonuses conditional on productivity improvements.
A significant obstacle in the negotiations remains Centrelink's offer of a 2% pay rise conditional on the agency meeting its reduced budget and staff demonstrating productivity improvements based on a scorecard that will vary from one office to another. If agreed to, this will result in different pay rates between staff doing the same work in different workplaces.
The industrial action, voted for at stop-work meetings by a significant majority of CPSU members, included pickets outside Centrelink offices and plans for another two-hour stoppage the following week. Regional offices in all states were picketed, as were the formal launches in some cities.
About 50 CPSU members from two call centres and Brisbane's area office participated in a lively picket outside the Brisbane launch. Local managers were met with chants demanding "wage justice, job security" and "Centrelink — you stink".
In Melbourne, half of the guests invited to the Brunswick office to watch the official opening on satellite TV refused to cross the picket line. While most Centrelink offices went on strike for two hours, Brunswick went out for the day.
Rob Heller, a worker at Brunswick Centrelink, told Green Left, "Members have shown their resolve to fight for a real pay rise, not the Mickey Mouse deal management is offering".
He said that the public response to the picket was good: "Once they understood the issues, they were more than happy to support what we were doing".
The following day, CPSU delegates were informed by management that their access to Centrelink resources for union purposes had been withdrawn, and all staff were told that Centrelink would put to an all-staff vote its proposal for a new agreement by early October.
Vardon also declared that, while CPSU officials had performed well in their negotiating roles, "CPSU activists within the social security section council, particularly in NSW, appeared to have other agendas".
All staff were earbashed with criticisms of the CPSU's "selfish" position, while managers began working overtime to demonstrate the "fairness" of their proposal.
Immediately after the announcement, the CPSU's social security section secretary, Mark Gepp, convened a section council meeting to convince section councillors of the necessity of ceasing industrial action.
Gepp and the CPSU national secretary, Wendy Caird, argued that a majority of staff would support the agency's proposal when it came to a vote. Section councillors agreed to the negotiations being reopened from September 27 and a suspension of industrial action for a period of two weeks.
Its pursuit of non-union agreements in the Australian Taxation Office and other agencies, as well as budget cuts and job losses, has made clear that the federal government is prepared to use whatever means are necessary to weaken unionism in Centrelink and, if possible, exclude the CPSU from future negations. In this environment, the unity and determination of CPSU members will be the key to beating back the government's attacks.
"Over the coming weeks, the CPSU will once again have to consider a campaign of industrial action across the public sector to force the government to negotiate", declared Centrelink CPSU delegate Jim McIlroy.
"Centrelink staff will not be immune from the outsourcing and widespread redundancies that have plagued other departments over the past 18 months."
[Nick Everett is a CPSU delegate at a Centrelink Call Centre in Brisbane.]