Public servants are staging one-hour rolling strikes in a dozen agencies this month, as their union, the CPSU, ramps up what it says is the largest campaign of industrial action in 30 years.
Tax workers began the action with a one-hour stoppage on budget day, following by stoppages in Human Services, the Bureau of Meterology, Agriculture, Defence, Veterans Affairs and Employment.
In the last year the Abbott government has slashed 11,000 jobs from the public sector. While some agencies have already been negotiating for a year, the government will offer no more than pay rises of between 0 and 1 per cent. It is also demanding deep cuts to conditions including an increase to working hours and loss of allowances.
The public service is also facing ongoing cost cuts, with an effective cut to public service funding of just under 1 per cent in the budget.
One striking Centrelink worker in Sydney told Solidarity, “Pay is the biggest issue for me. We deal with a difficult working environment and we deserve to be compensated.
“Cashing out sick leave is also an issue. It means they can come back next time and if people have cashed out days, they can say you don’t need 18.”
Within a month about 75 per cent of the 160,000 federal public servants will have joined the campaign, after industrial action ballots in Customs and Immigration are finalised.
CPSU membership is growing. While in many areas membership remains at around 30 per cent, in the last year the campaign in Human Services has seen that increase to 50 per cent. The union has signed up 10,000 new members since the start of the campaign.
Workers in the Department of Human Services and Veterans Affairs have been taking low levels of action for six months. Other departments are catching up following ballots that are necessary to take legal industrial action.
In early May the CPSU’s Governing Council decided on a plan of escalating actions through to July.
Following the one-hour stoppages in May, there will be Commonwealth public sector-wide mass meetings in June, with each capital city and major regional centre meeting on a different day. In Victoria, there will be two meetings, in central Melbourne and Geelong, with members bussed in to attend.
The mass meetings will be a major test for the union. Every delegate and activist must help to mobilise the members. If they are a success they will build members’ confidence to step up the campaign. This is a rare opportunity to build the union and larger networks of activists within it.
In July CPSU members will organise mass distribution of leaflets to build public opposition to the Abbott’s government war on public services. Public sector agencies will be distributing statements explaining why they are taking industrial action, and asking for support from the public.
This is modelled on the ambulance drivers’ campaign in Victoria, who covered ambulances with slogans protesting government funding cuts, as the key to winning the dispute.
The union’s strategy is to change government policy on bargaining through public pressure. Looming on the horizon is the next federal election. The CPSU is tied to the ACTU campaign aimed at voting out Abbott through a community campaign in marginal seats.
But the union cannot rely on electing a Labor government to defend our conditions and pay.
Labor under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard imposed “efficiency dividends” that resulted in thousands of job losses in the public sector and had already put in place plans for another 14,500 job cuts over four years before Abbott took power.
There is a huge potential power in the union’s hands. If the whole public service, even only union members, struck for a day it would have a huge impact. This would mean disruption to services that collect revenue like the Tax Office, as well as Human Services (including Centrelink, Medicare and Child Support), Customs, Immigration and the Bureau of Meteorology among others.
If the government continues their intransigence, the union has no choice but to increase the pressure. It’s time to strike back.
By a CPSU Section Councillor, Melbourne