Malcolm Turnbull has now become the direct target of thousands of angry public servants locked in a bitter two year workplace bargaining dispute, with the head of the Community and Public Sector Union demanding the Prime Minister himself find “sensible solution” or face APS-wide strikes including stoppages at airports over the Easter school holidays.
The direct appeal to top for the PM to push his public service chiefs into finding a compromise with employees came from Community and Public sector Union National Secretary Nadine Flood on Thursday as the union laid out its latest timetable for the biggest round of strikes yet that will hit towards the end of March.
“We are saying to the Prime Minister: we will commence significant strike action in three weeks-time if the government doesn’t actually sit down and try and find a sensible resolution,” Ms Flood said.
But the union has tempered its threat of stoppages with the strongest signal yet that it could be willing to accept low pay near inflation increases to preserve workplace conditions that the Abbott government had sought to have removed from enterprise agreements and put into less enforceable policy.
“This is not a dispute about pay: we are not far apart on money,” Ms Flood said. “It’s a dispute about the rights and conditions that people have and the pressures on them after two years of a wage freeze.”
The Australian Taxation Office on Wednesday conspicuously backed away from its previous attempt to add 45 minutes to the working week for its public servants, with Tax Commissioner Chris Jordan emailing staff to inform them of a new proposal that “reinstates the conditions that mattered most to you and keeps us at the forefront of APS pay and conditions.”
Mr Jordan described the revised proposal as “a significant shift from the last offer” adding that he hoped this showed ATO management had listened to its 20,000 staff.
The Tax Office’s compromise is significant because it sets a precedent for other agencies, especially the massive Department of Human Services, to eliminate some of the most contentious rollbacks of conditions that for most public servants are far worth more than a small incremental pay rise.
It is understood that since the change of leadership – and the return of Martin Parkinson to become public service chief – substantial pressure has been mounting on the Australian Public Service Commission, and its chief John Lloyd, to help find a circuit breaker in the negotiations.
Some commercial suppliers to the government believe that agencies are now being given a far broader scope to find financial and operational efficiencies outside labour costs, savings that can be sold as “smart savings” that would target areas like better mobility between agencies and a substantial decrease in the use of contractors.
But it is unlikely a major breakthrough will occur before the next round of strikes this month that the CPSU is talking up to be the biggest and most disruptive yet.
The centrepiece of the latest round of protected industrial action is an “APS-wide strike” of 24 hours scheduled for Monday 21st of March that will hit agencies including Tax, Centrelink , Medicare, Defence, Bureau of Meteorology, Bureau of Statistics, Department of Parliamentary Services, Education, Prime Minister & Cabinet, Environment, GeoScience Australia, Administrative Appeals Tribunal and the Australian Synchrotron.
Those strikes will be followed just days later on the 24th March with an Easter round of action by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources that will hit airports across Australia.
Despite the lack of a major breakthrough, the CPSU is insisting its actions and persistence is slowly having an effect on the government.
“Strong action from members throughout the campaign has helped secure important wins on issues like superannuation and productivity measurement,” the union told members in a bulletin on Thursday, adding that this had helped change the APS’ bargaining policy in October 2015.
“So far in 2016 we are seeing more agencies being allowed to restore conditions. This movement has been enough to see staff in a handful of agencies narrowly – and often reluctantly – vote up agreements.”
The looming election is also potentially handing the CPSU an advantage, with the lack of a resolution providing ammunition for Labor to attack the Turnbull government’s industrial relations intentions.
Predictably, the CPSU is calling out all the big names of the Coalition’s right faction as exemplars of what to expect.
“This has been a tough and nasty dispute where managers and casuals have been used as strike breakers and members have been stood down without pay for imposing partial work-bans,” the union said.
“At the same time hard-line Coalition figures including Cory Bernardi, Eric Abetz and Michaelia Cash have launched regular public attacks on public workers and their union.”
So far in 2016 we are seeing more agencies being allowed to restore conditions. This movement has been enough to see staff in a handful of agencies narrowly – and often reluctantly – vote up agreements.
It is estimated that around 130,000 Commonwealth public servants are sitting on lapsed enterprise agreements.