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  Issue No 51 Official Organ of LaborNet 28 April 2000  




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Wrestling With Reith

Interview with Peter Lewis

CPSU national secretary Wendy Caird has faced the full force of Peter Reith's attack on the federal public sector. The good news is she's still fighting.


Wendy Caird

What is the lot of a public servant in the early stages of the 21st Century?

Public servants are working longer hours, they feel less secure and they are working under much greater stress. The concept of a permanent job that people used to believe existed in the public service has long gone. People tend to be more confined to one department because of the way bargaining and employment arrangements exist. So, even the capacity to move around and have a career in the public service has changed quite dramatically.

What do we lose in our public servants by losing that mobility around the various departments?

You lose the investment in people. The government traditionally trained its staff well, but nowadays it is basically training them for the private sector rather than retaining them. Because more people are spending more time in the one area the logical move for them is often out of the public service. And that's a big problem because you tend to lose a lot of good people.

So where does the talent come in if it's all going out of the public sector?

The massive cuts in the public sector mean they are not bringing in young people - not in anything like the numbers they used to. The Commonwealth is no longer providing the training. For example, the Commonwealth used to employ very large numbers of apprentices, particularly engineering apprentices, and those people were often the people who formed the basis of whole sectors of the Australian economy. Without the Commonwealth providing that support and training for people we are losing much needed talent across the board.

The fact that it's a smaller public service shouldn't be a surprise, given that governments of both political colours have such an obsession with cutting budgets and cutting government spending. But what's the other side of that? We get the good news on the budget. What are the tangible things we are losing by cutting the numbers of public servants we have?

We lose a whole lot of service, scrutiny and accountability when jobs are cut or outsourced. There are two kinds of cuts being made in the public service. The first are arbitrary budget cuts. That is getting a smaller number of people to do the same amount of work. This inevitably leads to corners getting cut and integrity compromised. In an agency like Centrelink for example this means you wait longer to get your phone call answered and longer in a queue.

The other side of job cuts in the public service is outsourcing of work. There is an absolute fetish in this government about outsourcing. They are really working on a Kennet model, that is to get the public service down to simply a core policy body and have all service delivery, corporate services etc delivered through other organisations.

When you are looking at the role of Government, most people agree it should be focussed on health, education, welfare, and on working in partnership to provide infrastructure and support for the private sector. However, the sad truth is that the Howard government is choosing to vacate all these areas. Over time it means that society is not getting the service and underpinning that Australians have always expected.

How much of that trend do you blame on the former Labor Government?

I'm told that at the time the Labor Government was one of the biggest outsourcers amongst the OECD countries. But what they got up to was nothing compared with what's going on now.

We fought against outsourcing then and we are fighting against it now because we are yet to be convinced that it benefits anyone other than huge corporations.

At the moment several Government agencies are outsourcing all of their human resource management. So their payroll, their industrial relations, their internal management functions will be handled by a bunch of private sector chartered accountants.

What's an example of that?

AFFA, which is responsible for forestry and fisheries, is currently negotiating with Price Waterhouse to have all of its human resource management done through that company. Now this demonstrates just how misleading Peter Reith's talk about direct employer / employees bargaining is.... all he's trying to exclude is the union. If unions are a 'third party,' what does that make Price Waterhouse? The irony is that in the future those workers will be bargaining one step removed from the employer.

What can unions do about the Government's outsourcing fetish?

The tide is starting to turn. I think the community is starting to really question the value of Governments automatically selling off all of its assets.

Secondly, we are starting to accumulate important legal wins in the area of 'transmission of business'.

The biggest cost saving in outsourcing is in reducing job numbers and employment conditions. However, several Federal Court cases we have run recently demonstrate that when work is outsourced from one organisation to another, the same pay and conditions should 'transmit' to the new organisation. Which means the savings from lower wages and conditions will not be there.

When the government closed the CES down and the set up Job Network / Employment National they tried to employ staff in the government owned employment service provider on lesser conditions than the CES staff had. They argued then that public service awards only covered people while they were employed under the public service Act. They were wrong. The Employment National decision rejects that view.

So it takes out one of the incentives to outsource?

Absolutely. Yes. If the cost incentive is removed, then you are left with an ideological position that isn't backed up by the dollar amounts. We believe that this decision we will allow us to dramatically slow down this push to outsourcing.

This week we saw Mr Reith's book of bad bargaining tricks and almost every week we are getting horror stories out of the CPSU about attacks on union rights. What are some of the worst you have come across over the last few years?

Well, the Department of Finance is probably the worst offender. It's now got the lowest base rates of pay of any public service department. It had an initial collective agreement with staff which enabled enormous management discretion and virtually all pay movement based on individual performance measurement. We were very concerned about that agreement, but what subsequently happened is even worse.

The Dept now refuse to bargain collectively at all. Despite support for collective agreements, the only way for Finance staff to bargain over wages and conditions is through an AWA. Now that's the worst example of a trend in the public service, where workers are consistently denied their choice of bargaining.

We have agencies where 90% of the staff cast a vote in favour of a union negotiated LJ collective agreement but the employer will still insist on having a LK staff agreement. We find that when we go to the Commission to talk about that that there's actually no power for workers to have the sort of agreement that they choose.

There is no doubt the government's driving that agenda. They constantly measure what percentage of workers are covered by what sort of agreement. But this sort of analysis ignores the fact that in most cases, LK 'staff 'agreements have been won by a union team, elected as staff reps on a union ticket, to negotiate around a union log of claims. Yet the agreement is registered as a non-union LK agreement. Now, that gives you a taste of the ideological drive in the government's industrial agenda.

The good news is that despite the Government's best attempts the vast majority of the Australian public service staff are covered by union agreements - something like 70 per cent.

So how are you guys bearing up? Is membership going through the floor or are there signs of encouragement in some of the departments?

As far as our membership is concerned, we've certainly got a significant membership loss, but the Government have cut 100,000 jobs in our sector, so a very large proportion of the membership loss is directly attributable to that.

The support we get from workers - unionised or not - is encouraging. In agencies where our membership would be 40 per cent we are delivering an 80 per cent vote of workers in favour of having union negotiated agreements. So people really understand our role and support us. The challenge for us is to keep turning this support into membership growth.

The other side of it is, that whenever we run a 'NO' campaign against a sub-standard agreement, we almost always succeed in getting the bad agreement turfed out and a better one put in place. I think more and more staff are becoming empowered by this sort of process. They are learning that they don't have to put up with a second rate deal and that if they work collectively they will get a better outcome.

One of the things that Peter Reith likes to characterise in the entire union movement, but in particular the CPSU, is that you are just anti-change, you just want to keep things the way they are. Do you, as a union leadership, have a vision as to how you would like to see a public sector evolving into the 21st Century?

We've have a proud history negotiating positive change. One of the most significant changes was the second tier wage process where we broke down all the demarcations in the public service. Over 100 different classifications were reduced to about 8. We said we can't have a typing pool any more - it's no longer a production line. From the clients point of view it this was a major improvement. It meant that if you are going into an agency like Centrelink, then the person you are dealing with will be the same person who follows your case right through.

Now, that was a really tough call for the union. We played a major leadership role with our members at that time. So I think our history is pretty good about being involved in positive change.

The difficulty we have now is that what this Government is proposing aren't reforms, they are simply cost cutting exercises. You get a budget decision that says we'll cut 2% out of the staffing budget of an agency, but its not accompanied by a plan about a new way of working, or a new vision for providing service - it's just trying to do the same with less. And I don't think there's a lot of scope to negotiate positive change in that environment.

The other problem of course is that the government is trying to dismantle all of the consultative processes that we had in place. The government, through a very centralist role, severely limits each department's ability to include consultative arrangements with the union in their agreements. Even if there is a good working relationship and a high level of union membership, they refuse to allow clauses in certified agreements that set up regular consultative forums or give delegates time consult with their members.

Does that send your organising off site and underground?

It does really. And it means that it's more likely that we will end up in conflict than we would have done in the past.

What's your take on the ideas of Mark Latham who says that in the long term you have got to get public servants out of the big offices and back out into the communities so there is much more flatter public sector structures?

We have always said that there should be a community role in determining what level of services people want. We would support forums where the community has a real say about what sort of services they want, where they want them, and how they want to get them. We certainly support the actual physical presence of people in the areas where their users are.

So with all these changes is there any room for optimism for somebody in your position?

Always, because we are very determined. And we know that fashions come and go with things like public services. There are constant moves to centralise, then decentralise then centralise again. However we think there is a growing community awareness about the role of the public sector.

Much of the debate about regional services really is a debate about public services and we have a role to play in promoting that community debate. Obviously the Government's polling shows that they have got a bit of a problem on this issue. This is because the community is starting to understand what they are losing.

John Howard's recent trip around NSW talking about services was very interesting. Wherever he went people would confront him with stories about things they had already lost. So that showed a growing understanding from Australians about the things that government should provide for them. We have a 100-year history of proper public services that people have taken for granted. People are only just starting to realise this because they are losing them.


*    Visit the CPSU

*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 51 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Wrestling With Reith
CPSU national secretary Wendy Caird has faced the full force of Peter Reith's attack on the federal public sector. The good news is she's still fighting.
*  Unions: The Organiser
As the nature of working life changes fundamentally, union organisers like Sally are taking up the challenge and changing too.
*  Safety: Remembering the Fallen
NSW Industrial Relations Minister Jeff Shaw's keynote address to mark the International Day of Mourning for Deaths in the Workplace.
*  History: May Day Connections
May Day as a modern working class celebration and commemoration began from the 1886 events in Chicago where workers were demonstrating for an eight hour day. But the day already had special significance for working people before then.
*  Women: Swelling the Ranks
Jenny Wright wears the honour of being the nation's first pregnant wharfie modestly. But it's not all clear sailing for this trailblazer.
*  International: Dawn Raid to Arrest Korean Union Leaders
Riot police have broken into the office of the Daewoo Motors Workers Union in Pupyung, near Seoul, and taken union leaders into custody for the "crime" of leading a militant struggle to save the jobs of Korean auto workers.
*  Satire: Angry Star City Staff Strike it Unlucky
Gamblers panicked when they discovered they were locked out of the Casino when 1800 workers walked out.
*  Review: The World of Wobbly Window Cleaners
A new book 'Reshaping the Labour Market' shines the spotlight on the impact of labour market deregulation.

»  Government to Outsource Staff Relations
»  Dial-A-Contract Hits Call Centres
»  Reith Loses Plot Over 'Bad Bargaining' Bible
»  Prayer for the Fallen Marks International Day
»  Entitlement Time-Bomb Still Ticking
»  No Joy for Southern Picket
»  Union Fighter Shapes Up For Casino Workers
»  Stopped Clock Starts Ticking at Sydney Water
»  Telstra Tangle Over 'Honest Rob'
»  A Week of May Days
»  Big Drum Up for East Timor!
»  Pick a Pollie - the Truth Revealed

»  The Soapbox
»  The Locker Room
»  Trades Hall
»  Tool Shed

Letters to the editor
»  SOCOG Makes Another Meal Of It
»  Seeking Unionists With Blues
»  Is Red Ken So Clean?

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