It’s the ignominious number that captures the bitterness inside the pitched battle between the Abbott government and unions in the big push to permanently recast workplace conditions and pay in the Australian Public Service.
Within days more than half of the Commonwealth’s 159,000 public servants are set to be in official dispute with their employer and embroiled in industrial action amid deadlocked enterprise bargaining negotiations.
The Community and Public Sector Union on Monday revealed it is now going back to the Industrial Relations Commission on behalf of civilian staff at the massive Department of Defence to seek a strike ballot to legally clear the way for industrial action at Russell and around Australia.
At close to 20,000 non-military employees, a successful vote for industrial action at Defence wouldn’t just resonate in Canberra, but at facilities and offices right across Australia. The electoral poison is slowly spreading.
It takes a lot to persuade such a big number of bureaucrats and frontline workers to officially lock horns with their bosses. There’s little doubt well-seasoned union hard heads have been dedicating as many resources as they can to make the weight of numbers work on their side.
Over the past year the CPSU has been patiently, methodically and persistently been recruiting new and lapsed members across federal agencies to lock in a rank and file support base as it prepares to gradually start flexing its muscle.
Mass redundancies, hard and up-front, have enabled the main public service union’s influence and power to grow.
Fuelling that growth is an palpable fear among public servants that unless the present round of below inflation pay offers, which usually also strip-out entitlements and conditions, are resoundingly sent packing things will only go backwards.
Good faith has become an oxymoron.
Public servants at a variety of levels (many not union members) whom Government News has spoken to consistently pointed out that it’s a common misconception that the intensifying dispute is primarily about extracting a pay increase.
Rather, it is about the preservation of conditions that have taken decades to lock-in and which make working in the federal public sector a secure, flexible and rewarding career choice, even when there are frequently far better paid opportunities in the private sector — which actively headhunts the ranks of the APS.
Those conditions include access to flexible rostering, accruable leave provisions and allowances like those for performing higher duties. All add-up to provide an aggregate margin of compensation that creates an employee loyalty and ‘stickiness’ that many corporations find hard to match because of pressure from tight expenses ratios or fluctuations in headcount.
At the biggest agencies like Defence, Human Services and Tax, one of the biggest human resources battles has been to attract and retain in-house talent who possess technology and project management skills. Not just skills to keep systems running, but regularly modernise departmental infrastructure and applications so they keep pace with the rest of the world. Innovation skills.
While a member of the technology executive at a bank or blue chip typically earns in the region of $1 million a year plus a bonus, an APS deputy secretary would be lucky to nudge half that — despite running similarly sized and often larger operations.
The alternative to retaining permanent staff is paying a floating, usually higher, labour price to external providers for contactors and consultants who have little organisational loyalty and have even earned the unfavourable nickname of ‘the coalition of the billing.’
In state governments, particularly New South Wales, the recognition of the high on-market cost of organisational reform and technology project staff led to the creation of so-called applications ‘flying squads’ and other labour pools made up of experienced public servants. Teams which can be assembled quickly and sent into agencies to complete set jobs — rather than bidding against banks blue chip corporations for contractors or contracting work out during times of acute skills shortage.
While both Defence and Human Services both managed to resist the 1990s ‘Big Bang’ outsourcing push across the federal public service, agencies like Tax found themselves locked into decade long deals that not only delivered poor value but jettisoned essential corporate memory that was subsequently sold back to the government at a high premium.
With market testing now underway for Medicare’s claims and payments processing work, there are renewed fears previous outsourcing mistakes will be repeated in an effort to push down short term costs and place downward pressure on internal labour costs — especially conditions.
Yet that push may not come to much; not least because the most potent threat from an employer to employees — that their jobs will be axed because they cannot be afforded — has already been spent after 16,500 public service jobs were eliminated in the last Budget and before enterprise bargaining started in earnest.
In reality, it was Labor that locked in 14,500 of those job losses thanks to the loathed efficiency dividend.
In bars around and shopping centres around Canberra, the talk is that those spared the axe would probably settle for just a 2 per cent increase given the present economic and Budget situation . . . but not at the expense of conditions, especially when other efficiencies can be found on spending on IT and fleet and consulting services.
At Woolies in inner-north Canberra suburb of Dickson the talk in the aisles is of an Abbott “thug act”. The language at the Tuggeranong Hyperdome store is unprintable.
The CPSU is firing the blowtorch in to apply some targeted industrial heat to Public Service and Employment Minister Senator Eric Abetz.
“Industrial action is now planned in agencies that count for more than half of the Commonwealth’s 159, 126 public servants,” the union said in a statement.
“Department of Defence staff are next in line to take industrial action, joining other large Commonwealth agencies pushing back against the Government’s attack on public sector pay and conditions. If successful, Defence civilian staff will join their colleagues in Human Services, Veterans’ Affairs, CSIRO, the ATO, Employment and Agriculture who are all now planning industrial action.”
The National Secretary of the CPSU, Nadine Flood has branded the government’s offers so far as unworkable.
“The Government’s draconian bargaining policy means that public sector workers are facing cuts to their rights, conditions and hourly wages. Each day more public servants are standing up against Minister Eric Abetz’s unprecedented attack. They are saying no to these nasty low-ball deals which seek to slash their rights and conditions,” Ms Flood said.
“Taking industrial action is always a last resort but Defence staff will be joining their colleagues across the APS in sending a clear message that they are not going to cop this,” Ms Flood said.
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