Federal public servants will start enterprise bargaining from next May under a Labor government plan to reintroduce service-wide bargaining across the entire Australian Public Service (APS).
The Cross Agency Activists Network, a grassroots movement within the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), is calling on the CPSU leadership and the federal government to ensure that APS employees receive a real pay rise and meaningful improvements to working conditions.
Service-wide bargaining allows the entire APS to negotiate for one “core” agreement on pay and conditions, such as leave and superannuation, with individual departments left to negotiate other agreements for special allowances.
Service-wide bargaining was part of a sector, or pattern, bargaining process which existed until the early 1990s.
The system was first eroded by Paul Keating’s move to enterprise bargaining and finally abolished under John Howard’s Work Choices attacks.
Public servants have, since then, been forced to bargain department by department, which allows the APS Commission to deploy anti-union divide-and-conquer tactics.
A return to service-wide bargaining would give public sector workers more potential industrial power.
Many public service agencies have received only small pay rises of 2% a year, at most, under the nine-years of the Coalition government.
This was accompanied with an anti-union bargaining policy, including a “no enhancements” rule to outlaw unions’ bargaining for pay without sacrificing leave and other conditions.
Many departments were forced to take strike action to receive even small pay rises, which barely kept pace with inflation when it was around 2%: some departments went without a pay rise for up to three years, as bargaining dragged on.
Labor has released an interim policy for APS employees on pay and conditions, guaranteeing a minimum 3% pay rise in the lead-up to bargaining.
While marginally better than the Coalition’s 2% offer, with inflation at 7.3%, it is still a pay cut.
The Coalition government in New South Wales is still resisting state public sector workers’ requests for a pay rise. This is the reason for the series of strikes being organised by the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association, the NSW Teachers Federation and the Rail, Tram and Bus Union.
Labor governments in Victoria and Western Australia have also offered below-inflation wages to public sector workers.
The Anthony Albanese federal government has an opportunity to put its money where its mouth is and really “get wages moving,” as workplace relations minister Tony Burke is fond of repeating.
Ahead of bargaining next year, the Cross-Agency Activists Network is campaigning for the CPSU leadership to fight for:
• A meaningful pay rise: we need to offset the Reserve Bank’s 2022 inflation forecast of 7.75%, plus a real pay rise over three years combined with a one-off top-up payment to make up for Coalition neglect.
• A community campaign: the CPSU leadership must plan and execute a serious pay rise campaign. Holding APS pay down was a part of the Coalition’s strategy to keep pay low across the economy. With the cost of living crisis growing and industrial unrest starting to spread, we need to build solidarity with those struggles.
• An end to pay gaps: the lowest-paid agencies need a much bigger pay rise to close the gaps right now, not in the future. The government could fix this before bargaining even starts. The lowest-paid agencies are disproportionately staffed by First Nations and women workers. Failing to close the gaps entrenches disadvantage and discrimination. To better support the lowest-paid workers, this should be a fixed amount rise for everyone, not a percentage bonus that benefits those who are already the best-paid.
• Better conditions: the APS used to make headlines for history-making improvements to working conditions, including maternity leave, remote work and flex-time. Now, private enterprise regularly introduces better conditions, including on domestic violence leave, gender affirmation leave and even annual leave before the APS does.
• Immediate action on pay rises: Labor and the CPSU leadership are emphasising this “needs” to take time. A gradual approach will mean no pay rise for at least a year. This means less money in workers’ pockets and less money in their superannuation accounts. This entrenches disadvantage in retirement incomes, especially in low-paid agencies. Spending two or three years to work it all out means the difference between dignified retirement and poverty for thousands of workers like us.
Pressure needs to be mounted to move to real sector-wide collective bargaining as we need the numbers to fight for real improvements.
• A democratic strategy: we cannot wait for better wages to fall into our laps. We will only get what we fight for. A five-minute online survey cannot build a robust log of claims for bargaining. The CPSU must call for and organise mass member meetings in every city to allow for debate and discussion.