Public servants reject 3% wage-rise cap

Issue 

Bryan Sketchley, Melbourne

The Victorian Labor government has offered its 25,000 public servants a pay cut (in real terms), and a reduction in working conditions, in the current round of enterprise bargaining.

By scrimping on public servants' wages and conditions, the government believes it can fund its 2006 Commonwealth Games commitments and provide investment breaks for big business.

The enterprise agreement covering the Victorian public service expired on October 31.

The Community and Public Sector Union's (CPSU) claim for a new agreement includes: a service-wide union agreement that consolidates all conditions of employment; a 6% per annum or $52 per week wage adjustment to all rates of pay, or salary increases linked to state MPs' (whichever is the greatest); the next pay increase be backdated to November 1; a 35-hour working week; six weeks' recreation leave; long-service leave after seven years; 14 weeks' paid maternity leave; two weeks' paid paternity/partner leave; overtime standardisation across all agencies; standardisation of casual loading across the service; and, a central redeployment process.

The union's 6% wage claim is thoroughly justified, as the consumer price index for the September 2003 quarter increased by more than 3% due to interest rate rises.

Premier Steve Bracks' government has rejected the CPSU's wage claim and refused the backdating of any wage increase. The government has offered a 2.25% per annum wage increase, plus 0.75% for productivity increases (with trade-offs in conditions).

Hard-won conditions are under threat, including the limiting of overtime payments and a withdrawal of the union's right to consultation on a range of issues.

The government's refusal to standardise conditions of employment for all Australian Workplace Agreements still operating in the public service is particularly obnoxious, given that it was elected on a platform of abolishing individual contracts. Government departments are resisting the abolition of AWAs.

The government is also threatening public services, because it has stated that if the CPSU is awarded a better wage outcome through the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC), then the government will force agencies to fund the balance from their existing budgets.

While the Victorian government opposes the CPSU's wage claim, state politicians have awarded themselves a 4% pay rise, backdated to July 1.

CPSU delegates and activists on December 17 voted to continue industrial action across the public service, call agency-specific days of action and work with public service unions in Tasmania, Western Australia and South Australia.

State Labor governments are pursuing a common strategy of attempting to cap public-sector workers' wage increases at 3% per annum. Public servants in SA and WA are taking industrial action to break through this cap.

In Victoria, the unions believe that the Bracks government is using its negotiations with the CPSU to set a precedent for future agreements with teachers and nurses. The government has also offered teachers a 2.25% annual wage increase, with an additional 0.75% dependent on productivity trade-offs.

Around 2000 public servants have been involved in work bans across the state.

On February 2, bans by prison officers resulted in prisoners being locked in their cells for 23 hours a day. In response, the government applied to the AIRC for the bargaining period to be terminated. Under the federal Workplace Relations Act, industrial action is only legal and protected during the bargaining period.

The AIRC recommended that prison officers lift their bans while arbitration was proceeding, and that the government withdraw its application to terminate the bargaining period. The government agreed, with the proviso that if the prison officers' bans were not lifted, it would reapply. The AIRC ordered that, while existing bans may stay in place in the public service, no new bans could be enacted.

The union accepted the recommendations and the prison bans have been lifted, but it is obvious that the government is willing to concede little. All other bans are still being implemented.

[Bryan Sketchley is a CPSU delegate and a Socialist Alliance member.]

From Green Left Weekly, February 18, 2004.
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