The Community and Public Sector Union is set to start a series of protected strikes and rolling stoppages at the massive Department of Human Services after the union said a ballot of its members returned a vote of 95 per cent in favour of industrial action.
In a statement released on Monday afternoon, the union said the ballot had generated returns of almost 80 per cent of its 15,000 members in DHS, a figure that underscores wider, growing frustrations with the government’s attempt to public servants to accept below inflation wage deals.
“Centrelink, Medicare and Child Support workers will take protected industrial action in protest at a proposal that will see two thirds of their rights stripped and cuts to conditions for an annual pay offer of below [one per cent],” the CPSU said in a statement.
The eruption of the dispute comes as new public service chief Michael Thawley prepares to take the reins as the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet on 1st December and could mean the former Howard advisor walks into his first day job to find thousands of bureaucrats on strike.
It is understood that Mr Thawley’s appointment has resulted in a firm but subtle increase in pressure from some parts of the government and senior bureaucrats to get more flexibility in defining productivity increases that are now primarily locked to hours of work or entitlements that do not actually reflect the outputs of employees.
The positive vote for industrial action at Human Services closely follows a larger than expected backlash over the below inflation pay deal meted out to uniform Defence personnel who have no legal right to industrial dispute.
Palmer United Party Senator Jacqui Lambie dramatically upped the stakes in the Defence pay row last week after she said she personally would vote down all government legislation that came before her until a better deal was reached.
Her threat could result in the Abbott government having to negotiate with more cross Senators than before and make the passage of legislation far more difficult and expensive.
The CPSU showed no hesitation in referencing the Defence pay row as another example of what it sees as the Abbott government attacking workplace conditions in the bureaucracy as a precursor to a wider industrial relations campaign.
“This is a wake-up call for Mr Abbott and Senator Eric Abetz – you can’t treat your staff like this and get away with it,” said CPSU National Secretary Nadine Flood
“Like the [Australian Defence Force], working mums at Centrelink and Medicare are being asked to cop cuts to leave and other rights as well as a low-ball pay offer. Unlike the military, though, they can and are doing something about it – by sending a clear message to Government that they are prepared to take it to the next level.
“The target here is the Government, not the community. Minister Abetz’s extravagant claims that we will be hitting Centrelink payments in the run up to Christmas are just plain wrong, the CPSU has never said anything of the kind. Our member’s actions won’t hit payments that families, pensioners and others rely on but they will show the Government we mean business.”
The potential for disruption to the welfare system, and its use as a political weapon, is a double-edged sword for the government because agencies are essentially duty bound to keep delivering even in the event of strikes.
Senior executives at Human Services have previously poured cold water on media reports that disruptions to welfare payments will occur, with senior staff revealing in Senate Estimates fail-over measures that include getting the Reserve Bank of Australia to simply repeat welfare payments runs.
However last week the office of Michael Ronaldson, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, the Centenary of ANZAC and Special Minister of State, actively talked-up the potential for interruptions when it said it was “very concerned by industrial action threatened by the unions, which threatens to disrupt services to vulnerable veterans in the lead up to Christmas.”
The warnings at Veterans’ Affairs came immediately after the CPSU succeeded in applying to the Fair Work Commission for a staff ballot on taking protected industrial at the agency.
Ms Flood said bargaining was now under way in more than 70 agencies “and has been for eight months but so far not one agency has put a proposal to a staff vote.”
Government News is seeking comment from Human Services.
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