The massive Department of Human Services could be hit by strikes and stoppages before Christmas after the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) applied to the Fair Work Commission to undertake a ballot of its members over whether they want to take protected industrial action.
But the regular flow of $180 billion of payments to millions of welfare recipients appears unlikely to be hit because of the potential for damaging economic disruption a consequence the industrial umpire is unlikely wave in the event it ultimately permits legally protected industrial action.
The application for the ballot by the union of its DHS members, which includes staff at Centrelink and Medicare, is the second important stage in the escalating industrial row between the government and unionised public servants over pay and conditions contained the next workplace agreement.
The Abbott government has so far strongly indicated it is not prepared to cede ground on any bid for a pay rise without substantial changes to a raft of APS conditions and payments.
The CPSU said in a statement that should its application to Fair Work be successful, it would “allow members in DHS to take industrial action in protest at a deal that seeks to cut pay, conditions and remove important rights for more than 30,000 staff.”
“DHS staff are under attack by this Government,” said CPSU National Secretary Nadine Flood.
“They are being asked to accept a deal that would strip away important rights, make it easier for staff to be made redundant, and remove protections around their super, all for a pay offer that is way below the cost of living. This is one of the ugliest deals we have ever seen and workers are taking a stand.”
The Department of Human Services is expected to comment shortly, but had not released a statement at the time of publication.
The industrial dispute at Human Services is a pivotal one because it will effectively set out the likely course of action by union members in other departments and agencies which are also in the process of trying to negotiate new enterprise agreements with the government.
As one of the most heavily unionised workplaces in the public service, Human Services is seen as a test of resolve for Employment and Public Service Minister Senator Eric Abetz because of the high staff numbers welfare juggernaut which in turn have a direct impact on the government’s wages bill.
The previous set of workplace agreements for more than 100 Commonwealth agencies ran out on 30th June this 2014, putting wage negotiations in train against at the same time a massive tranche of redundancies culled the number of public servants by nearly 8000 in just 12 months.
Beneath the war of words, it is understood that neither the CPSU nor the government have any real appetite for interrupting the largely automated flow of money to welfare recipients because of the potential for a community backlash.
Centrelink has for years retained multiple alternative ways of funnelling payments into the bank accounts of welfare recipients to hedge against the risk of disruption from the likes of natural disasters and technology failures.
Centrelink is also known to have previously brought forward its payments run some years ago after an electrical substation in the Canberra suburb of Bruce blew out and forced one of its crucial datacentres onto emergency back-up power.
That incident that triggered a top-level rethink on the adequacy of failover mechanisms and energy security of agencies operating in the ACT, including Defence and the Australian Tax Office.
In the likely event that industrial action spreads across multiple Commonwealth agencies in the future, disruption or withdrawal of services that hit politicians than the public are an obvious option.
Unions that represent state government employees have for decades utilised so-called ‘feel-good’ tactics like stopping the collection of public transport fares or stopping the processing of traffic fines to help garner public support.
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