Public service pay dispute in arbitration while government cuts jobs

February 3, 2012
Rally outside state parliament, Melbourne in November.

Thousands of Victorian nurses, mental health workers, public servants and others have been trying to negotiate new enterprise bargaining agreements with the Coalition government.

Premier Ted Baillieu's intransigent state government has insisted it will not agree to any pay rises above 2.5% a year without productivity trade-offs.

The exception was the police force, which won a 4.5% annual pay rise a few days after more than 500 police violently evicted Occupy Melbourne protesters from City Square.

The Health Services Union then signed a deal with the government late last year agreeing to either a 2.5% a year or $25 a week wage rise, whichever was higher. Many health workers are low-paid, so a $25 a week pay rise is about 4-5% more for many lower-paid health workers.

The Community and Public Sector Union Victoria (CPSU) agreed to end protected industrial action for state public servants on Christmas Eve and began 21 days of compulsory conciliation negotiations with the state government.

At the time, the union and the government said the move to compulsory conciliation was a win.

CPSU state secretary Karen Batt told The Age on December 23 that the union was happy with the 21-day time frame and would not consent to a further extension.

“It [arbitration] is a risk for both sides,” she said. “What the government wanted was no end date. We've said 21 days, make an offer and if you're not going to make an offer, let's put our respective positions to an independent panel and let them make the decision.”

No agreement was reached by January 14, so Fair Work Australia began arbitration on pay and conditions for Victorian public servants on January 24.

In October, 96% of CPSU members voted to take protected action from November.

The government was particularly upset about child protection workers imposing a safe workload limit on the number of cases they took on. It took the union to Fair Work Australia to force the union to lift the child protection worker bans.

On legal advice, the union agreed to lift the bans to prevent the government from following the Qantas path of locking out workers and forcing the union to compulsory arbitration. The union kept some bans in place, but lifted those that most affected the government.

But the union reimposed the bans from December 23 after the government said it would cut 10% of public service jobs, a total of 3600 jobs.

These job cuts are a broken election promise by Baillieu.

Batt said the government committed to “fix basic services and protect public service jobs”.

“You can’t remove this number of employees without impacting on services,” she said.

“The work just won’t magically disappear so the government must be preparing the ground for privatisation. Victoria has grown 20% in the last decade, but the service is a third less in size than it was 20 years ago.”

Batt said the government had spent $12 million on consultants across the public sector last year and paid out $10 million in executive bonuses.

The Fair Work Australia ruling to cease industrial action applies only to public servants covered by the Victorian Public Service Agreement. Workers for statutory bodies such as Parks Victoria can still take protected industrial action

About 1100 Parks Victoria workers shut 100 national parks on and held a four-hour stoppage January 26.

The workers are members of the CPSU, the Australian Services Union and the Australian Workers Union.

Union members who are also members of Socialist Alliance have campaigned for more united action by the state’s public sector unions to take united industrial action in defiance of the Fair Work Act’s ban on effective industrial action.

For the Australian Nurses Union and the CPSU, fear of the Fair Work Act forced them to lift the only effective industrial bans in place. This led to a stalemate in their respective disputes. The nurses’ union is responding to the ban on industrial action by planning mass resignations.

The CPSU’s response has been to accept arbitration.

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