By Dick Nichols
On October 18 mass meetings of Public Sector Union members around Australia voted to strike for 24 hours on October 25 and begin a campaign of rolling stoppages from October 26.
The action came in the wake of government refusal to provide full funding in this year's budget for the payment of a 2% wage rise agreed last December. It was also a protest against government proposals to cut 5000 jobs this year and a further 10,000 later.
The mass meetings also endorsed the principle of enterprise ("agency") bargaining, which requires public servants to provide departmental productivity gains in return for pay increases. However, an alternative motion calling on the PSU leadership to withdraw from agency bargaining was supported by 30% of members nationally and actually defeated the official PSU motion at the main mass meeting in Melbourne.
The alternative motion supported the industrial action proposed by the PSU but called for "a real campaign to defend public sector wages, jobs and conditions".
Nearly 1000 PSU members meeting at the Dallas Brooks Hall voted to reject the official motion supporting agency bargaining, Chris Slee reports. They supported an alternative motion directing the officials to immediately abandon all processes involved in the agency bargaining system and calling for an industrial campaign to gain a public service-wide pay rise with no loss of jobs and conditions.
The alternative was moved by Tony Longland [see interview this page], who argued that the strength of the PSU lies in united action across all agencies.
The vote on the official motion was 445 in favour, 475 against. Subsequently the alternative motion was adopted 565 to 294. The victory showed what is possible when opposition forces have a clear alternative and argue their case well.
Rob Graham and Melanie Sjoberg write that just over 500 people attended the Adelaide central stop-work meeting, where the motion put by the PSU National Executive was carried 477 to 38. The figures for the whole state provided by the union were 626 for and 93 against.
However, these numbers are misleading, as the feeling of the main meeting ran pretty strongly against agency bargaining.
This showed in the questions raised: When would the union leadership of the PSU walk out on agency bargaining, as there was obviously no commitment to it from the government or the union membership? Why let the employer off with only a one-day strike? How could "productivity" be measured in those sections that have to compete in the marketplace with jobs the private sector won't touch? How could the government be trusted to keep its word given its latest effort?
The two speakers against the main motion got a good reception.
Cath Garvin, the assistant secretary of the ACT PSU branch, won strong applause for her articulate presentation of the case against agency bargaining at the ACT mass meeting, attended by around 1200 members, writes Greg Adamson. Garvin, a candidate for the opposition PSU Challenge team in the November PSU elections, led the widespread opposition to the official position.
One point emphasised by opposition speakers was the exclusion from the stoppage of PSU members from the Department of Primary Industry and Energy and most of the Department of the Arts and Administrative Services. This was a recipe for division, the speakers said.
While the vote was roughly two to one in favour of the official motion, interjections, applause and interventions from the floor showed an active sentiment against agency bargaining.
Given that not one agency agreement has actually been signed and that no PSU member has yet experienced life under this system of permanent trade-offs, opponents of agency bargaining here are confident that future mass meetings will swing behind their position.
Sydney Town Hall, reports Cameron Parker, was packed with 1200-1500 public servants. The meeting was dominated by expressions of reservation and opposition towards agency bargaining.
The debate took the form of a vigorous exchange between members and the officials on the platform, with no rank-and-filers speaking in support of agency bargaining.
Rowdiness and hostility towards the platform reached a high point when chair Mark Aarons declared a motion gagging debate carried 511-510.
In her summary, assistant branch secretary Vicki Telfer warned that if the alternative motion were passed, public servants would have to give up past pay increases.
This had the desired effect, with the meeting voting 660-424 for the official motion. The result bodes well for opposition to agency bargaining and for future campaigns of the PSU opposition, which mobilised many old and new activists to help hand out the alternative resolution.
Richard Wilson reports that the main Brisbane meeting ended in confusion as officials hurried to close off dissent over the counting of votes. Many listened in amazement as officials read out the results for the National Executive motion. Despite what looked like a very close result, the chair declared the motion passed by 431 to 234.
The official presiding explained that PSU voting procedure is to count the number of people in the hall and the number of votes against, and then to subtract to get the number of votes in favour.
At least 60 PSU members were counted in favour when they had abstained. Around 30 office trainees, non-PSU members on an excursion, were counted in favour. Representatives of the press became part of the yes vote without raising a hand.
Many workplaces have passed motions expressing concern over the meeting and misleadership of the current dispute.
In a circular to PSU members, Philip Statham, the assistant branch secretary of the PSU in Queensland and a supporter of the alternative motion, wrote that "the Brisbane meeting was conducted in an undemocratic way and the vote count was not conducted fairly".