Since the November federal election, the federal Labor government has moved to re-engineer the federal public service. In early December it re-shuffled portfolios to create new departments including the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR), with deputy prime minister Julia Gillard as its minister.
When DEEWR's predecessors — the Departments of Education, Science and Training (DEST), Employment and Workplace Relations (DEWR), and Families and Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (DFACSIA) — were abolished, their industrial agreements were rendered null and void.
On December 6, special minister of state John Faulkner reinstated the terms, conditions and pay of these agreements until a new industrial agreement is negotiated. As a result, there are currently 11 different sets of pay and conditions in DEEWR including a variety of AWAs (individual contracts) for staff at various levels.
The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) is gearing up for the new DEEWR agreement. In December, the unions' delegate committees in the Canberra-based national offices of the former DEST and DEWR departments united. CPSU organisers have called activist meetings, and an activist training day was held on April 18.
The CPSU national executive stated at the union's national governing council meeting in late March that the DEEWR agreement will be prioritised, as it will set precedents for the whole federal public service. DEEWR secretary Lisa Paul has agreed to a union collective agreement for the department.
One of the key issues up for negotiation is that a majority of staff in DEEWR are on individual agreements, some with well above the collective agreement pay rates. Some AWAs have "transmission of business" clauses, allowing them to continue despite the changes to departments and despite Gillard instructing the federal public service not to offer any new AWAs. Those on such AWAs, particularly those on much better pay rates, will need some convincing reasons to return to union collective agreements.
The separate levels of pay and conditions inherited from the predecessor departments will present a particular challenge in seeking a decent uniform pay rate and a common set of conditions. Also at issue will be the controversial performance management system in the former DEST, which judges not only job performance but also behaviour.
Under the former Howard government's 1996 Workplace Relations Act, it was common for elections for staff representatives to be run by departments. This was in order to encourage the election of representatives who were non-union or pro-management. However, CPSU members always won these elections in DEWR, DEST and DFACSIA.
But, under Work Choices, a union collective agreement can be negotiated by a single union representative and a representative of the department.
Indications, from the CPSU officials and organisers to the DEEWR national office delegates' committee, are that the CPSU will be calling for volunteers, rather than holding an election, for representatives to assist a professional union negotiator at the bargaining table.
While union members will be able to vote on whether they accept the bargaining claim and the draft negotiated agreement before the proposals are put to non-union staff, meetings to develop the claim and negotiations will seek to include union and non-union staff.
While the DEEWR national office delegates' committee has advised organisers that it is ready to assist in making this agreement, formal input processes remain unclear. CPSU federal (PSA Group) rules, while outlining the workplace role and elections of delegates, no longer mention delegate committees, and the wider role of delegates is yet to be determined. There is also an issue in DEEWR about whether elections for delegates will be held this year.
[Paul Oboohov is a CPSU workplace delegate.]