Australian Public Service staff rebel against the government’s hardline stance on pay negotiations

The government’s pig-headedness, say staff, along with cuts to working conditions, is causing many Australian Public Service staff to vote down enterprise agreements.

Many Australian Public Service staff are rebelling and voting down proposed enterprise agreements (EA) in the midst of what they say is the Abbott government’s lack of respect for them. They say the government’s brutal approach to negotiations comes after 18 months of tussling over the EAs of around 160,000 Commonwealth staff.

The government’s apparent distaste for its workers has shown itself in several ways, including government posters which appear to have been aimed at kindie kids, rather than Human Services (DHS) staff.

What public sector unions says are patronising posters have been plastered on many workplace walls in an attempt to encourage staff to accept a 1.5 per cent pay offer over three years. One prolaims: “1.5 per cent is better than 0.00 per cent – that’s a fact! Low pay offer? It’s the best pay offer around – and that’s a fact too!”

Relations between the government and its staff have been further undermined by what many employees see as an out and out attack on their working conditions, with the insertion of new clauses in areas such as rostering and part-time work. They say these will potentially have a serious impact.

The CPSU said proposals includedgiving departments the right to change employee hours at any time without negotiation, removing a parental right to work part-time before a child’s third birthday, threatening to punish staff by changing their working hours if their pattern of attendance or performance is viewed as not up to standard, and removing clauses from the current EA that allow employees to opt out or refuse overtime work for personal reasons.

A Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) spokesperson said: “Now staff could be tapped on the shoulder at any time to work late and on weekends with the only way to refuse now under the Fair Work Act which would require a lengthy dispute process with appearances before Fair Work Commission.”

Earlier battles, which the government has ended up retreating from, include attempts to remove the generous Australian Public Service entitlement of 15.4 per cent superannuation from enterprise agreements, offsetting modest pay rises with productivity gains by extending the working week for no extra pay, and abolishing the half-day Christmas shutdown.

Another expression of the government’s attitude to public servants has been that its agency representatives have been instructed to come to the negotiation table pretty much empty-handed, making an adult discussion about pay and conditions impossible, says the CPSU.

It’s a bargaining style that has infuriated unions and workers, and appears to have had an effect on the results of votes about whether to accept many Enterprise Agreements.

Last week, four departments openly defied the government, ensuring negotiations over pay and conditions are likely to drag on interminably with no compensation for workers when agreements eventually do get signed off.

The CPSU spokesperson said government’s policy was that no back pay would be paid to staff once pay rises were agreed. Enterprise agreements ran out in June 2014 and negotiations began in April 2014.

Staff at the Department of Human Services, the largest Commonwealth Department with 34,000 staff, overwhelmingly voted to reject the latest proposed Enterprise Agreement of 1.5 per cent over three years, with 83 per cent saying no and only 17 per cent voting yes.

The Department of Health vote went a similar way as its 3600 staff rejected a 1.5 per cent pay rise, with 61 per cent voting no. The government’s intellectual property regulator IP Australia also shunned a similar pay offer in an emphatic 73 per cent no vote, and 62 per cent of Veteran Affairs staff voted to reject their proposed enterprise agreement.

In a tiny bright spot for Public Services Minister Eric Abetz, 2600 Department of Social Services staff approved their pay deal, but only by a marginal 52 to 48 per cent.

CPSU National Secretary Nadine Flood said the government had a “harsh and unfair” bargaining policy.”

“The Abbott Government is going nowhere fast. Less than 2 per cent of public sector workers having signed up to new agreements, a damning statistic which highlights just how out of touch the government’s bargaining policy really is and the extent to which public sector workers will vote these agreements down,” Ms Flood said.

“It’s time for Minister Abetz to work with unions on a new approach to public sector bargaining. He needs to stop the grandstanding and childish name calling and sit down with the CPSU to negotiate fair agreements that protect the rights, conditions and take home pay of public sector workers.”

Recent readers’ comments below a Sydney Morning Herald article on the negotiations sparked a number of comments from public servants, many of whom said that the government needed to soften its stance and negotiate in good faith. They underlined that their main beef with the government was about the stripping of conditions, rather than the size of pay rises.

One reader commented: “Poor old Eric. He is out of his depth. Perhaps he should open his door and actually start negotiating rather than refusing to discuss.

“The government is supposed to have a good faith bargaining policy. Haven’t seen one scrap of this. In over ten years that I have been with Centrelink and DHS the department has not been capable of putting a single EA on the table on time.”

Another said: “I did not make my mind up until every available wall-space was covered with posters announcing it was the ‘final’ offer and that it was better than nothing. This is not negotiating in good faith, this is trying to scaremonger people into taking the rather poor offer, otherwise they would get nothing. Unfortunately for Abetz I think it has galvanised the department staff into holding out until they actually do start negotiating in good faith.”

A highly representative comment from another reader  said: “What everyone is up in arms about, and what this no vote is an emphatic statement against, is the stripping of working conditions and basic entitlements, the attempts to wedge groups of employees against each other, the undermining of trust between department and employees, and most of all the unconscionably hard-line bargaining framework the Abbot government put in place.”

It is not just the ‘no’ votes that are proving a headache for Mr Abetz, it is the scale of industrial action on the horizon too.

Tomorrow (September 15) will see Canberra-based staff from agencies including Human Services, the Tax Office, Employment and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection stage a lunch-time rally and half-day strike.

The CPSU has also promised further waves of national strikes later this month by staff from departments including Human Services, Agriculture, Immigration, the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Australian Tax Office and a range of others with disruption threatened to international airports, ports, service centres and call centres.

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