Strikes not arbitration needed in public service

Workers in Immigration and Border Protection are headed to compulsory arbitration, after three years of bargaining across the federal public sector where there government has refused to even negotiate.

The union, the CPSU, has presented this as a win, after industrial action at airports was halted on “national security” grounds.

Arbitration involves the Fair Work Commission running negotiations between the agency managers and the union, at the end of which the Commission imposes a decision. This takes control of the dispute totally out of the hands of members, removing our key weapon of industrial action entirely.

The union argued for arbitration in the Fair Work Commission. This was a mistake as the courts rarely side with the unions and will treat the government’s claims that they can’t afford pay rises with more respect than they deserve. The result will affect members in other public service agencies still campaigning for an agreement, but union officials did not ask our opinion.

The circumstances that led to arbitration in Immigration and Border Protection, where industrial action was claimed to increase the risk of terrorism at airports, does not exist elsewhere. Arbitration is very difficult to access under the Fair Work Act.

The union says that arbitration will expose the government’s cruel bargaining policy. The government may be embarrassed in the media but this is a weak form of pressure.

This same thinking is behind two other actions, getting a Senate Inquiry into the policy, and pushing Fair Work to declare Minister Michaelia Cash a bargaining agent. Fair Work has ordered agency heads and the APSC to attend conciliation talks. But these can’t force them to agree to anything.

These actions leave union members are left on the sidelines. A campaign based on industrial action, including strikes, pickets and mass meetings is badly needed.

The majority of staff (in Tax, Defence, Human Services, Meteorology, ABS Interviewers) remain committed to voting down bad offers. Some agencies are fronting up for their second and third votes. New ballots are expected in major agencies before Christmas, including Human Services in the week of 7 November.

The No votes show that opposition to these offers is supported beyond the 30 per cent union membership. This shows that industrial action could win support. Four cross-agency strikes have been run successfully. It’s time to step them up.

CPSU Delegates, Melbourne

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