Workers have staged federal public sector-wide strike action for the first time in a generation, with the first of a series of national half-day strikes on Thursday. In a further assault on public services, the Abbott government is trying to impose pay rises of 1 per cent a year or less alongside major cuts to conditions.
Six hundred staff packed out the Masonic Centre to join the mass meeting of Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) members in Central Sydney, with over 300 more in Parramatta. There were other meetings across NSW, WA and the NT on the same day.
Among the most visible contingents in Sydney were staff from the CSIRO, which has suffered major cuts to jobs.
One scientist from the CSIRO told Solidarity, “We’ve lost about 20 per cent of positions in the last year and a half. Just about every program has suffered. “Everyone’s working longer hours to do the jobs that colleagues used to do.
“We knew it wasn’t just our problem but it’s wonderful to see there’s a serious movement across the CPSU. We’re badly hit but we’re not the only ones.
“We haven’t had a pay rise for two years. They want to cut our conditions and not actually offer a pay rise at all.”
Deputy CPSU Secretary Melissa Donnelly told workers at the Parramatta meeting, “This is public sector bargaining as ideological warfare.”
“The government has been determined to force a fight”, CPSU National Secretary Nadine Flood said in Sydney. “They have cut 17,300 jobs since they came to office. This came on top of cuts and so called efficiency dividends from the previous Labor government.”
Bargaining on new agreements has already dragged on for over a year, “No one’s had a pay rose in a year, some haven’t had a pay rise for two years”, she said.
Staff in Customs are facing major pay cuts as a result of integration in the new “Border Force” agency. Susan Jones, a worker in Customs, told the meeting that in future, “Customs staff are required to work 36 additional hours a year, for which we will not be paid, which means our pay will be going down. For someone like me the outcome will be a loss of about $16,000 over the next three years.”
Allowances worth up to $8000 a year face the axe. But as she reported, “We have reached majority union membership within the Customs section. Our membership continues to grow every single day.”
“Today is just the beginning of the strike action we are taking,” Nadine Flood said. CPSU members across the rest of the country will take half-day strikes over the next few weeks.
Staff in Customs and Immigration are likely to take strike action again almost immediately, as they face an immediate pay cut from 1 July.
The Abbott government has tried to slash services across the board. Although they have been forced to abandon some of their attacks on Medicare, universities and pensioners they are still trying to make cuts that they hope won’t make the headlines.
Workers in the public sector are a favourite target.
The CPSU reported that after the first round of industrial action, involving work bans at different agencies, the government retreated from its attack on super. The series of one-hour stop works in May led them to drop further attacks on conditions.
And the union is growing, with 12,500 new members since the beginning of the campaign.
However, what is on the table is still savage. So far staff in Comsuper are the only agency to vote to accept a new agreement. The agency, with just 450 staff, received just a single 2.6 per cent pay rise over three years, which equates to 0.64 per cent a year given they have not received a pay rise in the last year.
And the government is also demanding cuts to conditions like increasing weekly working hours and reducing paid leave.
Yet the union leaders have indicated that further public sector-wide strike action is off the cards, though there may be “strategic” strikes. Instead the union’s focus is on a community campaign against the Abbott government, to expose its attack on services and workers’ rights.
The union is planning to distribute 2.5 million leaflets during July through frontline staff to users of public services and the general public.
The union has talked about a campaign to remove the Abbott government from office at the election.
But the key to winning better conditions is to build the union’s ability to fight in unity through industrial action. Simply electing Labor, who forced through job and funding cuts themselves, is no solution.
Ramping up the level of strike action to hit the government harder is the way to win.
By James Supple