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Workers get a pay cut to fund budget announceables

No-one likes to take a pay cut. Many public servants can’t afford one. I am on the Public Sector Union Bargaining Reference Group and I have been one of the union representatives who has been trying to negotiate for a fair and affordable wage increase for public servants. I don’t want to take an offer back to my fellow employees that will give them less pay than they currently get paid. But in 12 months of bargaining that’s all the Government has offered so far and they seem to be trying to lock it in through the budget. They tell us that’s all they can afford to but then keep spending more and more on their announceable big projects.

For example, spending on roads and bridges has increased in this budget from $1.1 billion estimated last year to $1.6 billion estimated this year. Delivering a 3% increase instead of 2% would cost them $28 million per year according to the budget papers and that is a tiny fraction of the additional funding they are putting into roads. We all want better roads but why should our wages be cut to pay for them? To use a household analogy, it is like making the kids go without lunches so you can buy a new, big, colour TV.

The Premier has said that he wants all Tasmanians to share the benefits of improved economic conditions but the actions of his Government are directly contradicting him. The budget has made provisions for public servant pay rises of no more than 2% each year while its forecasts for the CPI are 2.5%, 2.25% and 2.25% for the next three years. On that basis, someone on $70,000 per year would be $1, 600 worse off over three years. For many people that is going to make life a lot harder.

After the first written offer from the Government was rejected by union members in early March, the Government provided a second offer on 29 March 2019. It was only slightly different than the first offering marginally more but that was more than offset by even worse conditions.

The union negotiating teams then asked to meet with the Premier who has frequently stated that he wanted to resolve the pay dispute. It seemed like the only way forward and still does. However, he has refused to meet with us and has instead asked us to meet with his negotiating team instead. Earlier meetings with his negotiating team had seemed quite constructive as we had put some suggestions forward that would save money that could help fund the pay increases we were seeking. We have now discovered that some of those proposals, like reducing the use of consultants have now made their way into the budget without any consideration that the savings generated should be used to fund public servant pay increases. That seems like a breach of trust.

Worse still, the budget announces the reintroduction of vacancy control which is the exact opposite of what we were trying to achieve. There is almost nothing that destroys the morale of public servants more than vacancy control. It is a mechanism of delaying the filling of positions and adds a massive bureaucratic overhead. It reduces cost only by delaying essential expenditure, but it is massively inefficient and causes huge amounts of stress and service delivery crises. Most of the savings get lost in extra overtime while busy staff members spend ages pouring over the wording of Vacancy Management Control Forms. It eliminates any opportunity for rewarding or recognising good work and dashes any prospect of a career path in the state service. Planning is impossible because resourcing is not known. The bad practices that became entrenched from previous periods of vacancy control are the main targets of our proposals to unlock public sector skills.

But getting back to our meetings with the bargaining reference group, meetings recommenced a few weeks ago. At the start of the first meeting it became clear that their negotiating team has no decision making power but wants us to put a revised offer to them. Presumably they will take it to the Premier but then what? We run the risk of the Government cherry picking any trade-offs we might offer and not giving us the wage rise. The only possible solution seems to be to meet with the Premier, as we have asked to do repeatedly, to try and break the impasse. It is very frustrating that he won’t do so.

To make matters worse, Jenny Gale, the Head of the State Service, has issued a letter to all state service employees purporting to update them on the negotiations but only puts the Government side of the story and repeats the Government’s spin. It states that the Unions are “hampering her negotiating teams ability to reach a resolution” because we won’t put an offer to her negotiating team. We aren’t going to play that game for good reason.

One of its misleading statements in the letter is that the Teachers have been offered 2%, 2.5% and 2.5% over the three years while failing to mention that the offer contained some major trade-offs some of which the Teachers won’t even know when they vote to accept or reject it.

The letter contains a threat that back pay of pay rises might not be paid if we don’t reach agreement by 30 June. We are very keen to reach an agreement but it is the Premier who is holding it up not the unions as she implies. There is no reason why back pay can’t be paid after the end of the financial year and it often is. Ms Gale made this threat to us at the last meeting and then retracted it when questioned further. The Government has never made this threat and to do so would be against its wages policy.

I am hopeful that the Premier will agree to meet with us again. I am sure we can then convince him that it is his Government’s best interest as well as in the interest of the whole Tasmanian community to have an efficient, smooth running state service.



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