By Barry Healy
Public Sector Union national secretary Peter Robson has failed to push through the ACTU/ALP agenda for enterprise bargaining in the Australian public service. An overwhelming vote by members on a wages log of claims, completed on August 28, has directed that no negotiations on enterprise bargaining be entered into.
The vote is a victory for activists who circulated a supplementary motion outside the official union channels. It appears that at every meeting where activists were able to raise the motion, it was supported strongly.
The vote has ramifications for the Accord. The national $10 increase for minimum rates awards has been held up pending the PSU vote — now it hangs in the balance.
Robson's failure to deliver is a major political setback for him in the highly factional atmosphere in the ACTU and the upper echelons of the PSU.
It appears that Robson's fall-back position is to try to claim the middle ground in the debate — a method he has used in the past. In comments he made to the Financial Review before the end of voting (but when his defeat was already evident), he tried to present the membership opinion as a rejection of the government plan to have enterprise bargaining based on 28 different agencies. Robson's preference is 10 agencies.
Robson may use the depth of feeling among the membership to lever a slightly better deal out of the government and then try to sell that to the ranks as a victory.
Added to Robson's concerns are the ambitions of his factional ally, PSU acting assistant national secretary Wendy Caird. Previously, as NSW state secretary, Caird vigorously opposed enterprise bargaining. Her position reflected that of many state officials, who fear it will wipe out their factional fiefdoms.
But Caird showed her abilities as a national operator in the mass meetings in Canberra, where she demonstrated the sharp style of debate acquired in NSW ALP faction fights. Even though she could not win the vote for enterprise bargaining, her spirited performance showed that if Robson falters she will be capable of carrying on the fight for the ACTU/ALP.
The national debate on the wages proposal revealed a fraying at the edges of the normally slick leadership team. In NSW, acting branch secretary Vicky Telfer told a meeting of Bureau of Statistics staff that "the PSU have been doing enterprise bargaining for years; we've just never called it that".
Her candid comment contradicts what the PSU leadership has been telling the members for some time and describes behaviour contrary to NSW state conference policy.
In Victoria, a newsletter produced by the PSU Action Group reports extraordinary comments made at a recent Department of Industrial Relations seminar on "Workplace Bargaining in the APS". Speakers included enterprise bargaining advocate John Niland, Department of Social Security head Derek Volker and Peter Robson.
Niland's and Volker's ideas on agency-based bargaining were predictable. Niland said it was an "accident of history" that Australia has an industrial relations system emphasising equity and consistency, and Volker is looking forward to "improving absenteeism" and "more
flexible employment of staff".
Robson said it was difficult for the PSU to run a campaign in the current climate, that PSU members would rather forgo a wage rise than take one that did not involve supplementation, and that the main concern of members was job security.
The circulation of these comments, and the results of the current round of voting, may prove a major embarrassment to Robson and provide an opening for his factional supporters to move against him in the next union election.