Federal public servants staged their first 24-hour strike on 21 March, after nearly two years of insulting non-negotiable pay offers and attempts to strip conditions.

Workers across Medicare, Centrelink, the Tax Office, Bureau of Meteorology and the Bureau of Statistics took part in the action. But its visibility was undermined by the union’s decision not to organise any mass meetings or rallies on the day.

The action was scheduled to continue at airports over the following week, with Customs and Border Protection workers targeting the busy Easter period. But the union backed down, suspending action at the request of the Prime Minister after the terrorist attack in Brussels. This was a mistake—and the government has seized on it, heading to Fair Work Australia for an order to stop strike action at the airport as endangering “national security”. However CPSU members in the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, including in airport quarantine and biosecurity, will strike for 24 hours on Monday 18 April.

Industrial action at airports has been running for ten months, yet the government expects us to believe it has only just discovered it is a national security threat.

Members in agencies covering about 85 per cent of the APS have voted “No” at least once, many have rejected their offer twice and one, the Department of Agriculture, three times. The largest agencies—DHS (Centrelink, Medicare, Child Support), the Tax office and Immigration and Border Protection—are holding out with “No” votes larger than 80 per cent. Even Defence and the Prime Minister’s agency voted “No” recently.

Collective action

The fight requires APS-wide campaigning, while facing ballots on agency-specific agreements. Tax workers are gearing up for another vote by petitioning and leafleting outside workplaces.

CSIRO staff, lumbered with Abbott captain’s pick Larry Marshall as CEO, face major cuts to staff and programs. Up to 450 are facing redundancy. The CSIRO Staff Association (part of the CPSU) have run a tremendous highly visible campaign with successful national strikes and bans, and recently rallies in Hobart and Melbourne. They are planning further rallies for other cities.

However, the most effective way to change government policy is all-out strike action across the public service, with highly visible protests and solidarity from the rest of the union movement and broader community.

The agency-specific campaigns need to be seen as a focus to draw in members across the APS.

Union leaders argue we don’t have sufficient resources to organise this. Yet the resources of the union are more and more being channeled into electoral campaigning in marginal Liberal-held seats.

But Labor governments have also attacked APS wages and conditions. Gillard applied a 4 per cent efficiency dividend, causing major staff cuts.

CPSU officials clearly separate industrial from political action, urging members to travel to campaign in marginal seats to defeat the current government.

Far from being a negative at election time, industrial action can translate into political confidence for change. The Victorian election in 2014 was also dominated by industrial struggles like the ambulance workers and firefighters, encouraging the defeat of the Liberals after one term.

Yet CPSU leaders have squandered the willingness of workers to play more of a role by reducing their participation to handing out leaflets or telephoning residents in marginal seats.

Instead the CPSU could be leading wider industrial action, organised through delegates and workplace meetings, and showing the government our action matters in society because the public sector matters. However, the union is retreating from industrial action as the election approaches.

The issue which unites APS workers remains the need to change government policy on enterprise bargaining. CPSU has shown that a majority of staff, members and non-members support this campaign. However, it is not enough to keep voting “No” in ballots on new agreements; industrial action is required to create a campaign to force the government into actual negotiations for a decent outcome.

It is true most agencies have low union membership. However, instead of building campaigns to recruit new members who will support industrial action, the union has slipped into an electoral campaign as the answer.

The largest agency, DHS, enjoys about 50 per cent membership and could be the spearhead of such action, causing headaches for the election as Centrelink and Medicare slow down.

In Victoria, some delegates are campaigning for APS-wide delegates meetings to discuss and develop action across the service. Such meetings could plan solidarity for the many agency-specific campaigns and unite these struggles where possible in mass actions to challenge the government’s agenda. The moves towards APS-wide action need to escalate, not go on hold.

CPSU delegates, Melbourne

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