Public sector unionists fight for liveable income

September 23, 2021
Public sector workers have put in a big effort during the pandemic to keep communities safe and economically secure. Photo: Pixabay

An enterprise bargaining deal struck in early September between Australia Post and the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union of Australia (CEPU) will mean that postal workers will take home 3% annual pay rises each year for the next three years.

This is good news for public sector workers who have been prohibited from wage rises of more than 2% by the government’s freeze on wage bargaining.

Brooke Muscat, deputy national secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union, which covers federal public servants and other public sector workers, told the September 9 Canberra Times that the decision “is a dramatic departure from the current [Scott] Morrison bargaining policy and shows just how broken it is”.

Muscat said that the Australian Public Service (APS) Commissioner’s decision “recognised that workers deserve fair pay and conditions and they wouldn’t have gotten that under the Morrison bargaining policy”.

Since 2013, the federal government’s wage bargaining strategy limited unions to negotiating a maximum rise of 2% a year, with no improvements to conditions. It recently revised its policy to peg wages at the Wage Price Index (WPI), which measures changes in the price of labour over a year.

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures put the most recent WPI for the year to June at 1.9% and for the 12 months to April at 1.7%. If this stays below 2%, as is expected, workers will be worse off under the new WPI wages policy.

It also has the effect of turning wage rises into a sort of lucky dip: the government wants public sector workers to agree to a three-year enterprise bargaining agreement, with the second- and third-year pay rises determined by the WPI, even though the percentages will be unknown until just before the pay rise comes into effect.

Postal workers have certainly earned their 3%, providing a vital service throughout the last 18 months of intermittent COVID-19 lockdown and risking exposure to the virus.

Meanwhile, more than 340 Australia Post managers look set to receive approximately $7 million in bonuses, in addition to their base salary, despite earlier mumblings and threats of a wage freeze.

Data from the Parliamentary Budget Office, published in August, revealed that $12.5 billion in JobKeeper payments were made to businesses that did not record a shortfall in revenue between April and June last year. It also found that $4.6 billion was paid to 157,650 firms whose turnover increased over the same period.

The decision to allow postal workers their pay rise shows that some, at least, in government are aware of the glaring hypocrisy.

But recent figures from the Reserve Bank of Australia show that even 3% will not be enough to maintain standards of living because of rising inflation.

The Consumer Price Index, the standard measurement of inflation, was 3.8% in the 12 months to June, outstripping Australia Post workers’ wage rise. It is the largest annual inflation figure since December 2008, in the middle of the Global Financial Crisis, and means that life for most workers is becoming more expensive.

Over the last decade, low inflation was part of the government’s low wage rise bargaining policy. The trend towards higher inflation mirrors other capitalist economies, such as Britain and the United States, and becomes more of a problem for workers on low wages.

Just as Australia Post workers have earned their pay rise, the same is true for public sector employees and public servants across the country. In a consistent effort across the public service for the last 18 months, from the health department’s advice to Services Australia’s administration of JobKeeper and JobSeeker, public sector workers have been critical to ensuring safety and economic security.

As labour shortages in the United States show, employers are learning that workers will not put in longer hours without decent pay: flat wages are not a workable policy.

The Cross Agency Activists Network (CAAN), a group of federal CPSU delegates, members and activists, is campaigning for the union to challenge the federal government’s wage bargaining policy.

With many large agencies about to start bargaining, CAAN wants the CPSU leadership to endorse an APS-wide bargaining strategy.

[Find out more about CAAN by emailing CAAN is running a petition you can sign here.]

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