The Guardian • Issue #2084

Messy year for Public Service union

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2084
Melissa Donnelly Team group photo.

Photo via @DonnellyMel

In December, Melissa Donnelly, National Secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), celebrated “strong support for the Melissa Donnelly Team across all positions” in the union’s internal elections, with her incumbent Executive Committee ticket receiving approximately two-thirds of the vote. This declaration masked the reality of a strange year for the public sector and its union.

Late 2023 brought with it a flurry of activity. A union not known for significant actions or ruptures (particularly in recent years), the CPSU became caught between attempting to finalise an unpopular pay and conditions package for its workers and fighting an internal executive election. Neither a Labor-led negotiation nor a contested election had been seen for a decade and two, respectively.

Labor continued to offer real pay cuts for public service workers, following up the convoluted and unpopular ACT Public Service (ACTPS) agreement (ACTPS workers undertook industrial action for the first time in over 20 years during negotiations) with a service-wide APS proposal that didn’t guarantee real pay rises, and didn’t undo the significant wage deterioration experienced under Liberal governments. Since 2005, the median base salary for a worker at the APS6 level has declined $5,414 in real terms. Senior executive pay has increased by $81,847 in real terms over the same period. The union has been formally affiliated to Labor since 2007. The union executive are close to the ALP executive and advocate for Labor governments.  It’s hard to see how that has helped a membership whose pay continues to worsen in real terms.

All in all, 2023 was a year of negotiating failure for the CPSU. Both the employer and the dwindling number of public service workers retaining union membership appear to have recognised the union as a paper tiger; not even affiliation is guaranteeing results.

The Members United election campaign sprang from this mess. Beginning as a discussion group amongst disgruntled ACT Government members, the Democracy4CPSU caucus organised the Members United election ticket in August 2023 (see Guardian issue #2074), arranging candidates for all Executive Committee positions and a range of Governing Council (worker representative) positions across the union. The ticket – and especially caucus writ large – represented a broad church of activists from within the membership, including CPA members, and campaigned on reinvigorating internal union democracy, significantly increasing workplace density, relevance and industrial muscle, putting more power in the hands of the rank-and-file, and undertaking a plebiscite on Labor affiliation. All of this was to be done – and funded – by rank-and-file members and supporters.

The national elections, not fully contested between 2005 and 2023, continue to be dominated by candidates from Progressive Caucus, the opaque group from which the union leadership, and the funding of their campaigns, have emanated for approximately thirty years. Progressive Caucus campaigns tend to be fought via the letterbox, with tens of thousands of dollars spent on mailouts to the relevant membership. In 2023, the Progressive Caucus ticket (under the Melissa Donnelly Team banner) sent around 40,000 letters to all members, with more to members in priority areas. All this cost around $100,000. On top of this, current executives, paid organisers and a smattering of supporters conducted points-of-entry – visiting workplaces throughout the voting period. The Progressive Caucus did their best B A Santamaria impressions, asking some voters if they’d be comfortable with a union run by Gen-Z “communists and Greens.”

Members United, meanwhile, mustered up enough funding for a mailout of approximately 16,000 members only, combined with hundreds, if not thousands, of door knocks. In Canberra especially, candidates and supporters conducted direct voter contact for well over six weeks of evenings, weekends and sporadic leave. There is no doubt that this had a positive impact on turnout. The concept that union election candidates can visit your home to discuss union matters definitely spooked some members used to a passive ‘membership experience,’ but the ability to voice concerns to potential leaders is a positive step for the future of internal democracy. Media interest in the campaign, both local and national, was significant. Turnout improved considerably over the previous election, but only one-fifth of the total membership returned their mail ballot.

In the end, limited preparation time and the resource gap could not be overcome. Organising an effective opposition ticket in the space of sixteen or so weeks – with no funds, limited experience and, in one case, the sack – is no mean feat. Candidates and supporters are rightfully proud of what was achieved.

Democracy4CPSU has grand plans for 2024 and beyond, with hopes to make uncontested elections a thing of the past. Members need to celebrate achievements, but also reflect on the challenges of reorganising a dormant union. Democracy4CPSU activists have a lot to learn. Workplace organising – building a reputation for effectiveness as cadre and organisers – is crucial in not only redirecting the course of the union, but in successfully turning out the vote for future reform tickets. The 2023 election campaign was a wild ride, an attempt at positively reforming our union through shock and awe. The hard and fulfilling work of making a longer-term impact starts now.

CPA Canberra Branch

The Guardian can also be viewed/downloaded in PDF format. View More