Public service union leaders start electioneering


By June McKay

CANBERRA — Electioneering by national officer incumbents in Australia's largest union, the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), shifted into full swing in early April. In addition to finally preparing a response to national attacks on the public service by the Howard government, national officers have moved into permanent travel mode.

Travel costs of individual candidates in recent CPSU elections have reached tens of thousands of dollars. Under the pretext of union education or industrial campaigns, these expenses have been met from union funds.

In a new twist, there is a plan to post incumbent candidates to the ACT, the branch most hostile to the national leadership, for the period leading up to the May election. First to arrive has been CPSU national president Margaret Sexton.

The union has been generally slow in responding to government attacks on the public service. CPSU national secretary Wendy Caird angered a March ACT branch conference with a statement that the government was not expected to proceed with implementing new workplace relations in the public service until after the May budget. Delegates responded that it was already happening.

The first significant national union response was an early April proposal to members to campaign to maintain Australian Public Service-wide conditions of service and to meet at stop-work meetings on April 23. This received strong support in the ACT and is expected to be adopted nationally.

Based on past experience with agency bargaining in the public service, many union members are concerned that the union will accept some sort of department by department negotiation over conditions of service, something the Coalition government wants. At the moment this has not been formally proposed, although Department of Social Security negotiations with the union already appear to be heading down that path.

One candidate standing against Caird is Val Edwards, an ACT branch executive member and secretary of the subsection delegates' committee at the Australian Bureau of Statistics central office. Edwards is running on the National Challenge ticket.

Speaking in support of the national proposal at a Belconnen members' meeting on April 10, Edwards noted: "There is nothing in the Workplace Relations Act precluding an Australian Public Service-wide agreement, and retention of APS-wide conditions of service. The CPSU has the industrial strength to bring Howard and Reith to the bargaining table.

"We are in danger of repeating the previous experience of agency bargaining, led by the union's national officials, but now with potentially far more disastrous results.

"Our national officials have left it late to start such an industrial campaign, but now that it is here, members need to get behind it."

The previous evening, the ACT branch executive adopted a proposal to be put to the planned mass stop-work meeting in Canberra on April 23.

This called on the union to "reject any moves towards Australian Workplace Agreements or agency level agreements", to organise a "well-orchestrated ongoing industrial campaign, to be determined by regular mass meetings of members" and for "a National Day of Action combined with a 24 hour stop work" with a suggested date of May 8, a day of action against the budget planned by education sector unions.

Given the difficulty of the union's national leadership in getting ACT branch members to accept the do-nothing approach to Coalition attacks, the Caird grouping is throwing considerable resources at the ACT for the election period.

In addition to locating South Australian branch secretary (and national president) Sexton in Canberra, New South Wales branch secretary (and deputy national president) Vicki Telfer arrived in early April, nominally to prepare ACT members for a change in the method of paying union dues.

Moving branch secretaries from two of the union's eight branches to prop up the national officials' election campaign in the ACT indicates the leadership group's priority of re-election over defence of union members across the country.

To add injury to insult, the ACT branch was asked to pay Telfer's salary (equivalent to a grade B senior officer, more than $60,000 per year) during the election period. The April 9 branch executive meeting resolved not to employ her beyond the end of that week.