“We didn’t pick this fight, but it is a fight we will have, and it is a fight we will win.”
Those are the words chosen by Community and Public Sector Union National Secretary Nadine Flood to tell the Australian Public Service’s 165,000 employees that strikes, rolling stoppages and work-to-rule campaigns are now officially on the table.
The union’s leaders unanimously voted to back industrial action on Friday afternoon, a crucial move that paves the way for employees in agencies across the federal sector to hold workplace ballots and apply to Fair Work Australia (FWA) to legally go on out strike.
“We are asking 165,000 government workers to come together to protect their jobs, their rights, their conditions and their future,” Ms Flood said.
“Taking industrial action is a last resort and we would prefer to resolve this issue at the bargaining table. But this Government is refusing to sit down with us to try and find a sensible outcome. Instead it has chosen to attack public servants and the CPSU.”
More than a year in the making, the move by the union to green light industrial action comes at the same time the Abbott government prepares to try and push through low-ball deals at Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Defence at the same time the national security threat level has been raised.
The prospect of being seen to be trying to force an industrial dispute, push below inflation pay rises and dilute overtime, higher duties and leave conditions in security-related agencies at a time of ‘high tempo’ is understood to be sitting uncomfortably with a number of senior civil servants and some part of the government who are concerned about the inflexible message it sends.
In reality, there is effectively no chance that public servants will walk off the job in the kind of dramatic style seen in other industrialised sectors with picket lines and barricades.
Rather, a strategic and slow-burning campaign in workplaces and through the industrial courts is likely to eventuate with a strong emphasis on how vulnerable, disadvantaged and everyday Australians will lose out through cuts to public service numbers and conditions.
The union must also go through a number of set legal motions before commencing industrial action, including workplace representatives for public servants in individual agencies applying to Fair Work Australia to hold ballots on protected action, the ballots being held and their results determined.
After that the CPSU then has to give notice to agencies of its intentions to take action and spell out what those actions are.
Another tactical problem for the Abbott government is that with its initial offer being so low-ball, there is sound financial logic for many public servants to simply stick with the status quo rather than accepting reduced conditions for a peppercorn increase.
Inflaming that sentiment is Australia’s relatively low 3 per cent inflation rate that makes below CPI increase particularly unpalatable if other conditions that translate into extra pay or leave are reduced.
Ironically, it is likely that the so-called ‘no-compromise’ stance has driven up union membership following a concerted recruitment drive.
The CPSU’s Governing Council met in Melbourne over last two days and said in a statement on Friday afternoon that it had “voted to endorse ‘the use of protected industrial action that is consistent with the provisions of the Fair Work Act 2009, mobilising workers and commencing preparations to allow members to take protected industrial action that is required to protect their rights.’ ”
“This is not a step we have taken lightly but reflects the growing concern among public servants because of the Government’s hard-line stance,” Ms Flood said.
“We remain willing to talk but we have had nothing from this Government and Minister Abetz is refusing to meet. Today workers have taken an important step.”
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