20 September 2023

Just how hard will a union go against a Labor government anyway?

| Chris Johnson
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Woman in blue top

CPSU National Secretary Melissa Donnelly. Photo: CPSU.

It’s almost crunch time for APS bargaining and finding out whether employees across the sector will accept the government’s wage increase offer.

That offer sits at an 11.2 per cent hike over three years (revised up from 10.5 per cent), and the Australian Public Service Commission wants it accepted by the next meeting of parties on 28 September.

The problem is that no one knows where union members sit regarding the offer. Or do they?

The Community and Public Sector Union has put the offer out for a membership vote after a majority voted down the government’s 10.5 per cent offer earlier this year.

The CPSU’s claim is for a 20 per cent increase over three years, but the hierarchy has gone quiet since APSC chief negotiator Peter Riordan tabled the revised offer.

The jump from 10.5 per cent to 11.2 per cent isn’t a massive stretch, but it appears to have been enough for the union to change its tack somewhat and start stressing that APS-wide bargaining is about much more than mere wages.

Gripes have already emerged from the rank and file over how hard – or otherwise – union bosses have negotiated on wages.

But something that can’t be forgotten in this whole drawn-out saga is that this is a Labor government dealing with labour movement unions affiliated with it.

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The CPSU isn’t going to bring the government to its knees over wages or anything else.

It might have tried that on if Scott Morrison was still in office, but it won’t happen while the ALP is in power.

Not while Anthony Albanese is Prime Minister and certainly not while Katy Gallagher is Finance Minister and Minister for the Public Service.

The unions are the ALP.

The ALP’s national executive is full of union bosses.

It’s pretty much Wayne Swan president, a couple of VPs, a secretary, women’s convenors, Young Labor president, the PM as the leader of the parliamentary party, a couple of other MPs and senators and variously a string of union chiefs.

That has included CPSU national secretary Melissa Donnelly, which the union has never liked putting out there.

(Not so long ago, I edited a publication that did a profile interview on the CPSU national secretary only to have its media people demand that a reference to membership of the ALP national executive be pulled from the story.)

Assistant Treasurer Stephen Jones has been a thoroughly effective MP since being elected to the federal seat of Throsby (now Whitlam) in 2010.

In opposition and government, he has worked in substantial portfolios leading up to his current significant ministerial role.

Before all that, he was the CPSU national secretary.

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He gained preselection for Throsby following the resignation of Jennie George (a former ACTU president) and after the intervention of the ALP national executive.

None of that happened because he embarrassed a Labor government or a Labor opposition while he was a union boss.

Quite the opposite, in fact. He was one of Labor’s fiercest campaign leaders against John Howard’s WorkChoices.

That’s how unions work. Go hard against a Coalition government and not so much against their own side.

That actually all makes sense. Better to have your own team at the table if you want to reach consensus.

That’s not to say the CPSU hasn’t fought hard for some pretty impressive wins during this round of APS bargaining.

It’s a good union, representing public servants’ interests well.

Of course, not every union leader has an eye on future preselection (no idea about Ms Donnelly’s ambitions), but when all’s said and done, all of them want to keep the mothership happy.

A new round of protected industrial action could be one outcome if the CPSU rejects the pay offer (lookout Services Australia).

But voting down the offer isn’t a foregone conclusion.

Original Article published by Chris Johnson on Riotact.

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