By Nick Everett
On May 3-5, Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) members in Centrelink, the federal government's service delivery agency, voted on a new enterprise agreement. The result was 63% for, 37% against, reflecting a sharp debate among union members about how to proceed in the negotiations.
Campaigning hard for the proposals were both Centrelink management and the CPSU's Centrelink section executive, headed by section secretary Mark Gepp. Campaigning against the proposals was a network of section councillors and union delegates from five states, including delegates from seven of Centrelink's 20 call centres.
This network circulated a "Vote No!" statement widely amongst the union's Centrelink membership. The statement stressed opposition to the 5000 job losses from Centrelink resulting from federal government funding cuts, the introduction of a "performance based" system of pay and "blind monitoring" (unannounced remote listening) in call centres.
In response to this document, Gepp issued a reply, which was widely circulated by Centrelink management in the last week of the campaign. The reply sought to convince members that they had no alternative but to accept management's proposals.
Gepp claimed that if the union did not accept the agreement, Centrelink management would apply to the Industrial Relations Commission to terminate the bargaining period (which allows legally protected industrial action) and to terminate the existing enterprise agreement in favour of the Australian Public Service Award.
The award was stripped back to the 20 "allowable matters" under the provisions of the government's Workplace Relations Act last June. The award also contains significantly lower rates of pay, because the CPSU has not sought public service-wide pay increases for several years.
"The high level of opposition to the proposals amongst sections of the organisation, such as call centres, was reflected by the result here at the Brisbane Call Centre, where 75% of the CPSU membership rejected the proposals in favour of mass meetings to allow members to determine the future direction of the campaign", stated one of the call centre's delegates, Jim McIlroy.
"It is clear that Centrelink would have been unable to get these proposals through a staff vote were it not for the efforts of the CPSU leadership to convince members that there was no alternative.
"The challenge that confronts us now is to continue to build a real opposition to the federal government's agenda of carving up and destroying the public sector. The existing CPSU leadership has demonstrated that it is unwilling to put up a struggle against both job cuts and the winding back of conditions of employment that were hard fought for over decades in the public service."