For decades, the leadership of Australia’s public sector union has promised members that once a Labor Party government comes to power, it will lift wages and fix staffing shortfalls. The Albanese government is now refusing these demands.

Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese and minister for finance and former CPSU organizer Katy Gallagher attend a jobs and skills summit at Parliament House in September 2022, Canberra, Australia. (Martin Ollman / Getty Images)

Australia’s public sector union, the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) PSU Group is in a vexed position. It has spent the last decade watching its membership decline severely while earnestly campaigning for an Australian Labor Party (ALP) government in the hope that it will bargain in good faith.

Now the limits of this strategy are playing out. Labor is in office, and bargaining over pay and conditions in the public service is in full swing — and the government is not delivering. Former CPSU organizer and now minister for finance and the public service Katy Gallagher is refusing the union’s claims, calling them “impossible.” The government’s initial pay offer was about half the CPSU claim, which, adjusted for inflation, amounts to a pay cut. Gallagher is also signaling that the government won’t be able to afford to boost staffing numbers in future budgets. These cries of poverty are belied by Labor’s commitment to the former Coalition government’s $368 billion AUKUS arrangements and $243 billion stage three tax cuts.

So far, the CPSU leadership has responded tepidly, all but guaranteeing a second lowball pay offer from the government. They have only led a single one-hour strike and other small actions designed to frustrate management without impacting public service delivery. And these were limited to just one agency with high union membership; most CPSU members have not had the opportunity to take any action at all.

The ramifications of the CPSU leadership’s failed strategies resonate well beyond this round of bargaining. In 2008, the CPSU claimed a membership of 56,680. By 2020, it had declined to 41,302. Now the Labor government the CPSU wanted is in power, and it’s betraying the hopes the union’s leadership vested in it. This could accelerate the union’s decline, precipitating an existential crisis. The need for a new leadership and new strategy couldn’t be clearer — but, to achieve this, we first need to understand how the current leadership rose to power.

A Progressive Caucus?

The CPSU is managed by an opaque faction — the Progressive Caucus — which came to power in the early 1990s and which runs the incumbent leadership ticket in the union’s Executive Committee and Governing Council elections.

The Progressive Caucus operates according to what American labor movement activist Ellen Friedman might call a “culture of secrecy.” Although it controls the union, and although its impact is far-reaching, the Progressive Caucus’s existence is scarcely known by the membership at large.

Indeed, this secrecy is such that it’s unclear precisely how long the Progressive Caucus has existed, or whether members make financial contributions to the faction. Their terms of reference and constitution are not available to the union’s membership. Nor are their communications, deliberations, and meeting minutes. It is unclear whether they are a binding or nonbinding caucus.

One thing is clear, however: the Progressive Caucus runs career union officials with ALP membership for leadership. Of the six current CPSU Executive Committee members, only two appear to have ever been public service workers on the office floor. Most don’t have experience working in the public service — and those that do haven’t done it for over a decade. This means that the CPSU’s Executive Committee is remote from the union’s rank-and-file membership.

This Is What Progress Looks Like

Today it’s rare for rank-and-file groupings to challenge the Progressive Caucus’s hegemony over the union. But this wasn’t always the case. In the 1990s in particular, rival groups contested elections for the ACT branch, which comprised the ACT Public Service and much of the Australian Public Service. This saw the branch leadership regularly change hands.

This was significant for the whole CPSU. By 1994, the ACT branch was the largest in the CPSU, with over twenty thousand members in the Australian and ACT Public Services. This made the union a powerful force in Canberra. At the same time, the ACT’s total population was just three hundred thousand, including children and retirees.

The ACT branch of the CPSU was also industrially powerful, and members had a strong culture of striking. During that decade, union-led actions closed down libraries and preschools, and school lab assistants disrupted classrooms with work bans. The branch also struck against the privatization of youth centers to demand pay improvements for higher-level admin officers and to improve staffing levels. Suffice to say, the CPSU ACT branch took action quite a lot.

Now the CPSU in the ACT hardly strikes — even over below-inflation pay deals.

In the 1990s, the ACT branch often found itself at loggerheads with the national leadership. Inspired by the ACT branch’s success, the Challenge ticket mounted unsuccessful election campaigns against the union’s national leadership. Conversely, the national leadership at times intervened in the democratic processes of the ACT branch, including by delegitimizing the use of mass-member meetings. Sometimes the national union leadership even lined up with other unions to publicly attack the ACT branch.

In 2001, following the victories won by rank-and-file groups at the branch level, the Progressive Caucus found itself frustrated that the branch structure could be used to overturn leadership conservatism. So the caucus abolished state and territory branches. This move disempowered the rank and file, undercut regional democracy in the union, and centralized power in the hands of the national Governing Council and in particular the National Executive.

It’s reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht’s famous poem “The Solution.” Faced with an often insurgent ACT branch, the national leadership decided it would be easier to just dissolve the branch and elect another. Now regional secretaries aren’t directly elected by CPSU members but appointed by the National Executive. And, of course, they return the favor by endorsing the National Executive in union elections.

Today the union provides few avenues for building decentralized rank-and-file power. Around the same time as it centralized power, the Progressive Caucus cut union staff and centralized the provision of industrial advice to a call center in Sydney known as the Member Service Centre. This was part of the union’s broader move to a “servicing model” of unionism.

Today section councils allow for limited local rank-and-file representation, but few members are interested, and many councils have ample vacant positions with no one to fill them. There’s little wonder why. Under CPSU rules, section councils cannot direct resources or staff. And they are explicitly prohibited from taking actions that run contrary to the decisions of the Executive Committee.

The Union Affiliates to the Australian Labor Party

The Progressive Caucus moved against rank-and-file groups within the then powerful ACT branch because it blocked the leadership’s attempt to affiliate the union to the Labor Party. Once the branch structures were abolished, however, the pathway to affiliation was clear. Now a simple majority vote of the Governing Council was all that was needed.

The leadership decided the time was right in the lead-up to the election of Kevin Rudd in 2007. Reporting from the time suggests that CPSU members were taken by surprise. Little discussion occurred in section councils, save for the tax section, which voted against affiliation. No members’ plebiscite occurred, despite calls for one. In the end, the Governing Council voted forty-two to twelve in favor of affiliation, a decision so controversial it split the Executive Committee, with three members voting against.

Without a plebiscite, it’s an open question as to whether CPSU members supported affiliation to the ALP. But the fact that the leadership refused to call a plebiscite gives us a hint as to how they thought the vote would go.

Since affiliating, the CPSU has paid significant fees to state and territory Labor branches. In 2022, these fees totaled $182,930. In 2021, the sum was $181,458, and likewise in previous years. In 2019, the union even paid $640 directly to the New South Wales (NSW) Left faction of the ALP. Over years, enormous sums have been received by Labor that could have been used to build strike funds, mitigate budget deficits, or hire organizers and industrial officers.

Yet the Progressive Caucus’s bet on Labor has not paid off. In 2009, in the early days of the Rudd-Gillard Labor government, the CPSU’s then national secretary, Stephen Jones, assured members that Rudd’s changes to the Fair Work Act would end pay discrepancies and inequalities in the public service. In 2023, fourteen years later, the CPSU is still fighting for pay equity.

And this isn’t the only way the Anthony Albanese Labor government has betrayed public service workers. In October 2022, the newly elected Labor government granted an interim 3 percent pay raise to APS employees, in line with the public service raise granted by then NSW premier Dominic Perrottet. By the CPSU’s own admission, it wasn’t enough to mitigate rising inflation, which clocked in at 7.8 percent from December 2021 to December 2022.

If affiliating to Labor has failed so starkly in its own terms, it raises the question of why they’ve kept doing it. The career progression of Progressive Caucus leaders suggests an answer. After the CPSU affiliated with the ALP, Labor’s National Executive ensured Stephen Jones’s preselection in the safe seat of Throsby. Labor Left and Right united to push the move through without a preselection ballot, to the frustration of local ALP members.

More recently, at Labor’s 2023 national conference, current CPSU national secretary Melissa Donnelly won election to the ALP’s National Executive.

No Action Against the Faction

Affiliation has made the Progressive Caucus a key player in the “Hard Left,” of which PM Anthony Albanese is a member, and which has majority control over Labor’s Socialist Left faction. This power in part relies on Progressive Caucus support.

The Progressive Caucus and the Hard Left mirror each other in many ways. For example, under Albanese’s leadership, the Hard Left has suppressed rank-and-file democracy in the ALP and led a shift to the right. This shift has been so profound that Labor members now face the disillusioning reality that their party supports policies like Scott Morrison’s stage three tax cuts, the AUKUS submarines deal, and keeping welfare payments well below the poverty line.

In public, the CPSU leadership is silent on these key policy issues, and the union’s media center issues no comment. Indeed, despite its below-inflation pay raise and refusal to seriously invest in rebuilding the public service, the CPSU’s only statements praised the federal budget as a step in the right direction.

Instead of an industrial strategy, it’s a public relations strategy. Instead of winning improvements, the CPSU leadership promotes inconsequential “wins” to members while refusing to openly criticize Labor’s regressive tax cuts, military spending, or ongoing neglect of social services.

Other union leaderships are more courageous. The ETU, the MUA and the NSW Teachers Federation all issued statements opposing AUKUS. The United Workers Union criticized the stage three tax cuts as part of a broadly supportive appraisal of the budget. The CFMEU has launched a radical and ambitious campaign calling for billions of dollars in housing investment financed by taxing superprofits. In this context, the CPSU leadership’s dogged loyalty to Labor is singularly dismaying.

And Then the Union Grows?

If recent trends continue, the Progressive Caucus’s loyalty to Labor will see the CPSU’s membership continue to decline. Labor being in government only attenuates the decline, as it did from 2008–2011, when the union lost only 780 members.

However, there are other precedents that bode worse, including ones the CPSU leadership cites to defend loyalty to Labor. Labor has been in government in the ACT, independently and in coalition with the Greens, since 2001. For sixteen out of those twenty-two years, the CPSU has been ACT Labor’s largest affiliated union, with the largest conference-floor delegation. The CPSU leadership argues that the ACT government’s public service Union Encouragement Policy is its direct result, as are enterprise agreement clauses that ban outsourcing and privatizing government functions.

Despite this, the union has still lost members, as a look at election results for the CPSU’s ACT Government Section shows. In 2005, in a contested election for a Governing Council position, the ACT Government Section claimed 2,361 members on its roll of voters. In the next contested election, seventeen years later, the ACT Government Section’s membership had fallen to 1999.

This decline occurred despite the fact that the ACT public service has grown significantly in the last half decade. In 2016, it recorded 18,904 full-time-equivalent employees, a figure that rose to 23,763 in 2022.

Although the CPSU’s decline mirrors a general decline in union membership since the 1980s, this doesn’t excuse the leadership. After all, other public sector unions, such as the Australian Nurses and Midwifery Federation and the Australian Education Union, have bucked these trends. The reality is that the Progressive Caucus bears full responsibility for the union’s decline.

No Group Holds Power Forever

The CPSU Progressive Caucus’s formula has failed. To reverse the union’s decline in membership, it will take a revitalization of rank-and-file democracy — and this will clash with the Progressive Caucus’s commitments to centralized decision-making and the ALP.

There are signs that members are disillusioned with the leadership. Results from 2014 to 2020 demonstrate that the Progressive Caucus is increasingly unable to drum up support for its national secretary. In 2014, 9,584 votes were cast for the national secretary. By 2020, that more than halved to 3,655.

It was the lowest turnout for a national secretary election in the union’s history. But concurrently, in the union’s biggest section, Services Australia, a rank-and-file ticket called Fight2Win came close to seizing the positions of section secretary and section president. The result showed the Progressive Caucus was vulnerable.

At the same time, another challenger made a tilt for deputy secretary of the union. Running alone and without any campaign infrastructure, Matt Partridge, a former section secretary for the Department of Finance, won 40 percent of the vote against the incumbent’s 60 percent. Partridge ran to revive the union’s democratic structures, and a very significant minority of the voting membership backed him.

If a single challenger can win 40 percent of the vote, an organized rank-and-file ticket campaigning actively, with disciplined messaging, has a chance at winning. After all, incumbents always fall sooner or later. An organized reform caucus could replicate and exceed the successes of the 1990s.

The Progressive Caucus is in a vulnerable position, and its fate could be contingent on the outcomes of service-wide bargaining. Having spent a decade saying things will improve under Labor, they’ve effectively bet the farm on the ALP actually improving things — and the odds aren’t good.

On the other hand, with forty thousand trade unionists and public sector professionals as members, it’s a pretty safe bet that there will be a few dozen — or few hundred — who feel the need to democratically intervene and demand better leadership. If that happens, it is easy to imagine several thousand frustrated and disillusioned members feeling empowered to cast a ballot to give them a go.

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