The already extensive list of Commonwealth departmental and agency staff digging-in for bitter workplace disputes over stalled workplace bargaining with the Abbott government keeps growing by the week.
The CSIRO, the Department of Environment and Geoscience Australia have become the latest organisations whose staff have initiated formal preparations for industrial action in coming months for what’s been dubbed the Australian Public Service’s big ‘winter of discontent’.
Employees at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) on Friday were granted permission by the Fair Work commission to take a Protected Action Ballot (PAB) after the Commonwealth and Public Sector Union successfully applied to the industrial umpire to hold the vote expected to start on March 27.
The trifecta of science-related agencies headed preparing to strike comes as despondence grows among the scientific and research community — and industry — over Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s frustrated attempt to push legislation through the Senate to deregulate university fees by mandating cuts of around $150 million to the Commonwealth Grants Scheme unless the bills clear the Upper House.
But with the legislation visibly doomed by crossbench Senators ready to torpedo the changes in their entirety, the government changed tack sharply on Monday and decoupled the science funding scientific cuts from this year’s Budget by separating them out of the legislative package on fees and effectively pushing them into next year’s Budget.
Despite the last minute backdown, the spectre of looming funding cuts is certain to inflame an otherwise separate industrial dispute as relations between the government and the nation’s scientific and technical sectors sinks to a new low.
On Thursday Business Council of Australia head Catherine Livingstone broadsided the government’s threat to cut science funding, comparing the move to the research sector being used as a hostage in the political process.
CSIRO Staff Association Secretary Sam Popovski said that negotiations for a new enterprise agreement at the government’s top scientific body had effectively stalled.
“The major stumbling block is CSIRO management’s support for the Federal Government’s unworkable bargaining policy, which mandates cuts to working conditions, rights and pay,” Mr Popovski said on Friday.
“CSIRO staff are frustrated and dismayed by management’s decision to target their workplace rights and conditions, especially following the brutal cuts to jobs and research.”
The union said Budget cuts of $115 million, exacerbated by declining external earnings, had produced hundreds of job losses, site closures and the shuttering of research.
The CPSU estimates CSIRO will shed nearly 1,300 jobs in a two year period equating to a 20 percent cut to the employee numbers.
The National Secretary of the CPSU, Nadine Flood, said the move towards industrial action in CSIRO mirrored similar action across the public service.
“CSIRO staff will be joining tens of thousands of other union members in Human Services, Veterans’ Affairs, the ATO (Australian Taxation Office), Agriculture and Employment who are all now taking or planning industrial action.
That list has been grown over the last fortnight by the addition of staff from Department of Environment and Geoscience Australia also applying for PABs.
CPSU Deputy Secretary Beth Vincent-Pietsch said although Environment staff were anticipating an attempt to cut conditions “they are in the dark about their pay.”
“Staff only have half the picture. Despite months of bargaining they don’t know what kind of pay rise to expect, only what they are being asked to give up to pay for it,” Ms Vincent-Pietsch said.
“They know that provisions around flexible working arrangements and the protection of the employer’s superannuation contribution will be stripped out of the agreement, along with 15 other items.”
Employee relations are at their frostiest over what the CPSU asserts is an attempt to freeze-out existing special conditions for staff stationed in Antarctica,” Ms Vincent Pietsch said.
“Staff in the Antarctic Division know that they stand to lose a substantial number of allowances that make up a large chunk of their pay when they are on the base.”
The union is also gunning hard to keep remote housing allowances provided to National Parks staff working far out in the bush.
“National Parks staff face losing their remote housing allowance which enables them to be where they are needed most – looking after some of our most fragile and precious natural environments,” Ms Vincent Pietsch said.
Ms Vincent Pietsch said the Department had been stringing staff along for months.
At Geoscience Australia, there are similarly deep industrial rumblings among those charged with detecting tectonic events.
Staff there have also applied for a PAB with CPSU President Alistair Walters saying Geoscience employees had been campaigning for a new proposal for 11 months and that their “patience is wearing thin.”
“They are getting increasingly concerned at what they are seeing across the public sector, which are mean and tricky proposals that seek to cut their conditions and rights in return for low-ball pay offers.”
CPSU President Alistair Waters said staff are increasingly alarmed at the proposals that were being offered across other agencies.
“Staff at Geoscience have been campaigning for a new proposal ever since bargaining kicked off 11 months ago but their patience is wearing thin.
“They just want to be treated with respect by the government and to get on with the job of providing first class geo-physical services to industry, first class advice to government and the vital work of earthquake monitoring and running the Australian Tsunami Warning Centre,” Mr Waters said.
Should the union secure the vote of union members for industrial action in Geosicence, this cover a range of work bans and stoppages of up to 24 hours.
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