An already tense industrial stand-off between two federal Employment Minister Eric Abetz and the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) has edged further towards a full blown dispute after around 1500 Department of Employment staff overwhelmingly rejected their employer’s proposed new below inflation wages earlier this week, with just 77 voting to accept it.
Ninety-five per cent of Department of Employment (DoE) staff have formally voted down the pay offer which comprised of a below inflation pay increase of 1.4 per cent over three years, 46 job cuts through ‘natural attrition’, the scrapping time off in lieu for middle management, increasing pay band increments (making salary advancement more difficult) and losing half a day off on Christmas Eve.
However the emphatic rejection of the offer from within Senator Abetz’s very own department has triggered a a terse warning from the Employment Minister that the result in now way means the government will cede ground to unions and offer more generous terms.
“Government employees and unions should be under no illusions about the consequences of voting no to new EBAs under the Government’s Bargaining Framework,” Senator Abetz said.
“The Government has made it clear that voting no will not mean that Departments will have any capacity to make more generous offers as the Framework will not be changing.”
With unionised staff at the Department of Human Services and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs already in dispute over their stalled wage deals, the stage is now set for a dramatic escalation of industrial action across the Australian Public Service in the new year.
Senator Abetz said any wage rises not offset by productivity gains could only come through job losses.
“The CPSU should abandon its irresponsible and unsustainable claim for a 12.5 per cent pay rise, which would cost 10,000 public service jobs. All Departments must absorb any additional wage rises within their existing budgets.”
Should those job losses occur, it would push the number of public service retrenchments to 15,500.
A Department of Employment spokesperson told Government News that the Department would take time to consider the outcome before further bargaining meetings in the New Year.
“The Department is disappointed with the ballot result,” the Department of Employment spokesperson said. “We considered the proposed enterprise agreement was a realistic and affordable offer to employees.”
“We cannot make commitments which are not offset by savings. We will continue to work within the parameters of the Government’s bargaining policy and our internal operating budget.”
The spokesperson said there would be no back-dated pay increases.
Meanwhile, CPSU National Secretary Nadine Flood called the result a wake-up call for Senator Abetz.
“The message from staff to the Minister is crystal clear – don’t cut our conditions and real wages. If Minister Abetz’s own staff won’t swallow such a terrible deal then how can he expect the rest of the public service to do so?” Ms Flood said.
“In light of this result we once again call upon the Minster to sit down with the CPSU and work together to find a sensible resolution.”
Things have been getting ugly between the minister and the union for a while now, with each accusing the other of dissembling and of using scare tactics – particularly around whether public servants’ 15.4 per cent super is protected or not if it is removed from the EBA.
Ms Flood has insisted that if the set percentage for super contributions is moved out of the EBA then it is not protected; but Mr Abetz has countered that the contribution rate is “set by the trustee, a legislative instrument subject to parliamentary scrutiny” and will not alter.
Tensions have intensified since August, when Ms Flood broadsided the minister with a strident Canberra Times opinion piece accusing him of peddling agreements that “strip existing rights, cut conditions and offer very low pay rises”.
“Many agencies are reluctant to lead the charge in bargaining,” Ms Flood said in her opinion piece.
“For those that have, we face a surreal situation where agency negotiators are told to push positions that they know are untenable, while managers are told to go out and sell to employees the equivalent of turkeys voting for Christmas.”
In response, Mr Abetz said public sector pay rises have been 14 per cent over inflation in the past decade and accused the CPSU of scaremongering.
The vote is the first all-staff vote of any federal department and could be an indication that Mr Abetz’s low-ball pay offers accompanied by simultaneous demands for productivity increases are likely to receive short-shrift from 163,500 public servants in other departments, negotiations with which have been dragging.
There’s also no immediate agreement in sight for Department of Human Services staff, some of whom have staged protected industrial action last week, including telling customers they are in dispute with their employer. Negotiations are expected to resume in January.
Staff at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs voted to take industrial action earlier this month.
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