Public service unionists launch campaign against federal pay freeze

September 24, 2020
The Community and Public Sector Union covers workers in the federal public sector affected by PM Scott Morrison's pay freeze

A group of federal Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) delegates, members and activists have launched a campaign calling on the union to fight the federal public service pay freeze.

The Cross Agency Activists Network (CAAN) is a grassroots organisation of members and delegates which aims to work within the CPSU to take militant action against wage cuts.

A confusingly-worded media release by the federal government on April 9 announced it would defer pay rises to all federal public servants and that any pay rise due over the 12 months from April would be delayed by a further six months.

This freeze covers cost-of-living pay rises, which the CPSU had already bargained for, as well as pay rises for agencies including those on the front line of bushfire and COVID-19 responses — Defence, Home Affairs and Services Australia. The latter had been promised a 2% annual pay rise, by ministerial determination, if they did not to undertake the difficult and time-consuming bargaining process.                                                         

CAAN believes that the government has stabbed workers in the back. There is no guarantee that it will unfreeze wages next April, despite the public sector working hard across all departments through a catastrophic year.

Meanwhile, through decreased superannuation and take-home pay, the pay freeze will have a long-term impact.

Labour economists Troy Henderson and Jim Stanford from the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work argued in April that “freezing pay for even short periods of time reduces lifetime income and superannuation of public sector workers by tens of thousands of dollars”.

The Same Mistake Twice: The Self-Defeating Consequences of Public Sector Pay Freezes estimated that a 6-month pay freeze for a public servant would reduce earnings over a person’s career by approximately $23,500 and that this move would likely spill over into the rest of the economy, causing a domino effect.

They proposed learning from the mistakes of the past and argued that the Labor government’s policy of public sector wage restraint over 2010–11 “short-circuited an initial recovery in private-sector wage trends”, meaning that  Australia’s wage growth was the slowest sustained since World War II.

Australian workers have gone for years without a real wage rise, while housing and power bills keep increasing. The public service pay freeze is a clear signal to corporate Australia that more austerity is on the cards, even though historically this approach has only deepened every economic crisis, including the Great Depression.

The government is cutting full-time public service jobs as it also out-sources some jobs at the top end to highly-paid corporate contractors and low-paid, insecure labour-hire workers at the other end.

CAAN believes that while the CPSU is doing some good work for members, the official response on the pay freeze has to be more than a few critical media releases.

“We want to give CPSU members a grassroots forum to show the leadership that this is a critical issue and a threat to many members’ livelihoods”, CAAN activist Paul Oboohov told Green Left. “We are calling on the CPSU leadership to take the cuts seriously, so we can be ready if the government does another double-cross in April.”

CAAN is calling on the CPSU national executive to launch a member-led campaign around the following demands on government: to immediately scrap the APS pay freeze; fund wage rises to compensate for the erosion of real wages; and establish a merit-based pathway for all casual, labour hire or long-term contracted workers to move into equivalent full-time ongoing APS positions.

In the spirit of union solidarity, CAAN’s campaign aims to unite public servants regardless of agency, role and mode of employment — fulltime or part-time, permanent or labour hire.

CAAN aims to establish democratically-run campaign groups within the CPSU, as well as to seek community support. It believes that workers have seen through the government spin about “lazy bureaucrats” after watching public servants doing their best during a series of crises.                           

CAAN will be marking 6 months of the government’s pay freeze on October 9 by inviting federal CPSU members to join and sign its call to action.

[Interested unionists can email for more information.]

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