Workplace delegates debate DSS cutbacks


By Peter Webster

SYDNEY — Social Security workplace delegates from all over NSW attended the Combined Delegates Conference (CDC) at the Community and Public Sector Union's Sydney Office on March 27 and 28.

Important issues discussed included the restructuring of the CPSU, the role of the CDC forum, new initiatives such as the parenting/partner allowances, and the continuing crisis in DSS resourcing.

DSS has 20,000 staff working through 300 local offices and visiting services, 16 teleservice centres, 20 area management offices and a national administration in Canberra. Since the '93-94 budget, workplaces have been increasingly squeezed for productivity.

The situation was apparent to all grass roots staff, yet the national and state executives of the CPSU failed to take the lead. It took from the end of 1993 to August 1994 for the CPSU to endorse and promote a campaign based on work bans and limited stoppages.

This is in stark contrast to the resources put in to promoting agency bargaining at the same time. Part of the case for the agreement was that the CPSU negotiators had a firm commitment that any wage increase would not be paid for by staff cuts or a reduction in staffing funds.

Many workplaces did not receive any benefit from the resources agreement, and the pressure to "reprofile downward" — i.e. to eliminate positions — continued unabated. Some workplaces now believe that nothing can save them and so have lost the will to fight.

Some $6 million earmarked last October for the system has not been released, being blocked by endless disputes about the wording of the agreement, and being dependent upon three tiers of joint DSS-CPSU committees to determine who should get how much.

The National Delegates Committee passed a resolution on February 13 calling on the DSS and the federal government to halt the cuts and negotiate an objective approach to funding withdrawals or face an industrial campaign. The response deadline of March 3 came and went without any movement by DSS management. No industrial campaign was initiated.

Individual workplaces decided that enough was enough and passed resolutions to ban parts of their duties for which they had received no funding. Palm Beach, Nerang, Biggera Waters and Mermaid Beach offices in Queensland banded together to fight the department, only to receive no support from their state executive.

Ashfield, Campsie and Cabramatta offices in Sydney have banned an inefficient and potentially harmful recording system. They may be called before the Industrial Relations Commission not knowing whether the CPSU state branch will be able to present their case properly.

The workplace delegates at the CDC were angry and mistrustful of the national industrial organisers (NIOs) when they gave their reports on the second day. Challenged from the floor about the lack of decisive action by the CPSU, one of the NIOs said that talk of banning new government initiatives was an act of social sabotage. Delegates wondered who he represented.

A number of motions dealing with resourcing were debated on the second day of the CDC, all of them condemning the disregard for true consultation by the department, the lack of resources and inadequate processes for implementing new initiatives. However, what action to take to recover lost ground proved to be a point of contention.

The dividing line seemed to be between those officials who support the national and state executives with a largely passive and "respectable" approach to the crisis, and those activists (workplace delegates) who wanted to "stop the rot" immediately by taking industrial action.

The upshot of the motions passed was that the National Delegates Committee was directed to take the department to the IRC and to begin an industrial campaign.

The appalling state of affairs which has developed over the last two years can be laid squarely at the feet of the national and state executives. Despite the steady erosion of members' wages and conditions, and the blatant disregard by DSS for past agreements, the executives have failed to lead, to spend the effort to make clear what the federal government is doing to them and to take on the government toe to toe.