Interview: Public Defender
Legal: Craig's Story
Unions: Wrong Way, Go Back
Politics: Queue Jumping
History: Iron Heel
Economics: Waging War
International: Under Pressure
Poetry: Billy Negotiates An AWA
Review: A Pertinent Proposition
The Locker Room
Truth in Advertising
What a Woman!
It's Not Pretty
Interview with Jim Marr
Your union's had a birds-eye view of John Howard's workplace agenda. Tell us about dealing with federal government as an employer.
Since 1996 the government has been attacking unions in its own area of employment as a bit of an example to other employers about how it wants them to operate their industrial relations policies. That's been characterised by aggressive challenges to the legitimate role of our union in the workplace, challenges to our rights to represent workers and to bargain on their behalf.
At every step in the process we have had to establish our legitimacy through workplace activity. Members have adopted a range of activities to demand their rights to union-negotiated contracts, through the CPSU.
How far does the challenge go. Would you characterise it as a challenge to your right to exist?
Absolutely, at every level. Early in the piece, they ceased payroll deductions. This was a deliberate attempt by the Commonwealth to try and cripple our financial viability. They were clever about how they did that. If any member wished to continue, they had to re-join the union every 12 months. We have dealt with that by getting our members onto direct debits. This has worked well for us.
Secondly, they tried to make it very difficult for CPSU organisers to enter workplaces and, where we have workplace representatives, they have come under increasing pressure and discrimination from senior managers.
Recenty, we had one of our representatives, Paul Willson who worked in a Centrelink call centre in Adelaide, being refused pay increases because of his role as a delegate. Now we know that members and delegates have been systematically discriminated against but, what was unusual with Paul Willson, is that management put it in writing. They were that bold. They thought they could get away with it because the government was telling them they could.
The Government has also attempted to deny members representation in bargaining. A good example is the Public Service Commissioner, the head of the body established under the Public Service Act to safeguard employment arrangements and to uphold public service values. She refuses, point blank, to allow employees in her agency to have a ballot on the type of agreement that will cover their employment conditions. She says that this decision is too important to be left to her employees.
There has been a lot of publicity about your run-ins with DEWR and Centrelink. Have you been able to get up collective agreements?
In Centrelink, at the moment, we are at the pointy end of a bargaining campaign and we are hopeful that it be resolved by the end of the year. There has been a seven week campaign of membership activity, and industrial action, to get a decent agreement.
Centrelink is seeking some drastic changes. It wants to remove core conditions like how pay increases are achieved, hours worked and penalties and allowances are paid from agreements into management policy where they can be unilaterally altered after the agreement is made.
In Centrelink and in Telstra, and now in the core public service, we are seeing management adopting new strategies. they want a double-chop at negotiations. They try to get the union to agree to their log of claims in a collective agreement. Members generally resist. But then, the day the agreement is made, they try and sign up individuals and new starters onto AWAs containing the very issues that have been rejected in collective bargaining.
This is happening right now in Child Support Agency.
Where does that leave good faith bargaining?
What it shows is that the government has no commitment to good faith bargaining. It also makes a mockery of the no-further-claims requirement parties are bound by as part of the process.
Some commentators predicted you would be the first union to fold up its tent because of the things you have been talking about. But you're still here, any important messages in that?,/b>
Not only are we still here but over seven and a half thousand people join our union every year. In a difficult environment, we have continued to win good wage increases, on average four percent a year since 1996, and we still have over 80 percent of Commonwealth public servants covered by union negotiated agreements. This is not because of any deep ideological position those people may hold, rather they understand that union collective bargaining delivers better outcomes for them and their workplaces.
We have achieved this because we are winning the hearts and minds of employees. When employees are given a free choice, nine out of 10 times, they will go with a collective agreement.
The government doesn't like this. So we foresee that in the next two years they will go to extreme lengths to remove workers rights to genuine freedom of choice. No AWA no job.
You have also faced the problems of outsourcing and contracting. How successful has the CPSU been in dealing with those issues when services have been flicked off?
That's right. they have outsourced thousands of good paying jobs since 1996. I'd have to say our achievements in responding to this have been mixed. In the communications industry we have put in place new awards to cover these workers when the work is outsourced but now these awards face the chop. We have aggressively attempted to continue representing our members in these areas but the deck is stacked against employees. The reality is that in many areas the whole purpose of outsourcing has been to avoid union agreements and conditions and to keep the union out. The companies that get the work are the ones who support this philosophy.
Notwithstanding that, we have continued to pursue outfits like Stellar, Sensis and Teletech. We are having a go but, there is no doubt, the industrial laws are designed to load the bases in favour of employers.
There have been claims that this government, perhaps more than any other, has gone out of its way to politicise the public service. From you position, are they true?
It is certainly the case, at every level. Take one small example, it is now a breach of Centrelink's code of conduct for any employee to wear a union badge a union lanyard or t-shirt. Workers face disciplinary action if they breach that code.
The policy of requiring an employee to sign an AWA as a condition of appointment or promotion cuts across 200 years of merit-based public service promotions and appointments. The best person, now, will not get the job unless they are prepared to sign a non-union individual contract.
You are viewed as an advocate of so-called recognition ballots as a way of unions holding the line. What's the rationale behind them?
I don't nail my colours to the recognition ballot mast. What I do say is there needs to be a statutory right to collective bargaining and that the existing situation, where only the employer has the right to choose, is inconsistent with basic democratic principles. We need a mechanism that enshrines workers' rights to collectively bargain, and to be represented by a union.
You then need to identify what the trigger for that is. In our experience, in the Commonwealth public sector and in the communications industry, a workplace mandate is crucial. How that is achieved is a matter for debate. What I do know is that it is consistent with democratic values and the notion of choice. It operates in other countries and I think it is something we should look at.
The key thing in all this is the right of workers to a genuine right to choose, we don't have that at the moment. The only way to get up a union agreement in this environment is where you have the strength to beat some sense into an employer through the law of the jungle and that's not good for industrial relations or our broader society.
Are unions in a position, given the start they have had to the public campaign, to, knock off AWAs?
I think we have to. The way AWAs operate runs counter to our rights to collectively bargain and any notion of freedom of choice. Look there has always been an element of individual bargaining in this country but, importantly, that has come on top of the award or the collective agreement. With AWAs, individual bargaining is a mechanism for bringing down wages and conditions and breaking collectives.
Can we rely on the ALP , at federal level, to do away this raft of anti-worker legislation if trade unionists put their efforts into having them re-elected?
I think we can. The opposition has done a good job this week, they have said they oppose these laws.
There will be a challenge though. When it comes time to design a new system there will be a need to re-think the policy framework to make it relevant to the new environment. There are many former trade union representatives in the federal parliament who have been great advocates for our cause. The challenge will be to ensure that they understand the problems that we face right now. It is very different to the environment that they may have faced when they were union representatives. The federal ALP needs to understand, for example, that AWAs as they currently exist, are completely incompatible with the core things we believe in.
But I think we can deal with this. We have excellent leadership in the movement at the moment through the ACTU and the trades and labour councils.
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