The 30,000 strong and heavily unionised Department of Human Services is set to be rocked by an ongoing series of work bans and internal protest actions from Thursday 11th December, kicking off the first wave of public service industrial strife just in time for Christmas.
The Community and Public Sector Union has put members within Human Services on notice that it intends to start protected action from next Thursday, with legal applications to permit a range of activities expected to be lodged imminently.
As anticipated, the first round of work bans looks certain to include a range of high visibility tactics to get the union’s message across to the general public and customers.
Messaging from the CPSU to thousands of members says action will include “bans on the wearing of corporate uniforms in customer facing workplaces” and the “the reading of an authorised CPSU statement to all customers contacting the department by telephone (excluding Child Support Program).”
Other tactics will include “bans on the use of Auxiliary codes in all Smart Centres, inclusive of call and processing teams” and “the inclusion of an authorised CPSU statement in email auto reply messages sent to internal DHS email addresses.”
While the industrial activity clearly intended to avoid any adverse consequences for customers or disruption to normal services, it nonetheless signals the start of official hostilities between the Abbott government and unions over below inflation pay deals that have produced stalled or deadlocked negotiations.
“Due to the lack of progress at negotiations and the Government’s unworkable bargaining policy we plan to start with a series of low level work bans designed to put pressure on DHS management and the Government while minimising inconvenience to DHS clients,” the notice message to members said.
Human Services’ management has hit out at the industrial action, insisting that negotiations are ongoing.
“We are extremely disappointed the CPSU has chosen to undertake a broad campaign of industrial action, as bargaining discussions are ongoing towards a new enterprise agreement and we are meeting our good faith obligations,” a Human Services spokesperson told Government News.
“To date, the CPSU has not provided us with official notice of any intended industrial action involving department staff on 11 December. The union must provide the department with between 3 and 5 days’ notice, depending on the action planned, before any industrial action can occur.”
One thing Human Services’ management and the CPSU do appear to agree on in the dispute is that customers won’t be caught in the middle.
“Industrial action to date has not had an adverse impact on our customers as we have in place contingency plans to address potential disruptions,” the Human Services spokesperson said. “The department remains open for business, and we have robust processes in place to ensure the delivery of health and welfare payments is not affected by any industrial action.”
Some of those “robust processes” have been revealed to include potentially using the Reserve Bank of Australia to re-run previous fortnightly welfare payments scripts to keep money going into bank accounts in the event the Human Services wasn’t able to.
Meanwhile, in the week-long run-up to the work bans, the CPSU is firmly reappraising its Human Services members of their industrial rights, issuing a “protected action guide” and telling members that “an employer cannot take or threaten to take adverse action against an employee simply because they take protected industrial action.”
However in a clear recruiting push, the CPSU it has also cautioned staff at the Human Services who are not members that they will “will not be legally protected” if they take part in industrial action and need to join-up by Wednesday 10th December if they want to participate.
The union estimates that around 15,000 members will participate in the action that will stretch right across Australia as well as through electronic channels.
The Human Services industrial dispute is regarded as a key test between for both the Abbott government and public sector unions because its results could ultimately flow onto other agencies that have started or are about to go into enterprise bargaining.
Unionised staff at Human Serviced voted overwhelmingly to reject below inflation offers put to them that would have traded away conditions and allowances as well as incrementally increasing the number of working hours in a month, a move agencies have been told to put forward as a “productivity” enhancement.
CPSU members at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs this week also voted in favour of taking to protected industrial action as part of their dispute over another below inflation bargaining offer.
Electoral resentment and backbench pressure over the government’s 1.5 per cent pay deal for uniform defence personnel, who have no legal industrial rights, finally boiled over on Monday when Prime Minister Tony Abbott revealed he had told Defence to restore a raft of allowance, leave and conditions that had been previously axed.
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