A deadlock in enterprise bargaining negotiations at CSIRO may have revealed the roadmap for reintroducing WorkChoices in the public service by stealth. By Karen Middleton.

CSIRO's workplace stalemate

CSIRO chief executive Dr Larry Marshall during senate estimates hearings.
CSIRO chief executive Dr Larry Marshall during senate estimates hearings.

On Tuesday this week, members of the CSIRO staff association flew to Townsville to appear before a senate inquiry into enterprise bargaining in the public service.

Two years and three months since CSIRO’s workplace agreement expired, negotiations for its replacement remain at stalemate. The degree of frustration in the lack of progress was evident.

“To go on, year after year, dealing with this bloody-minded, ridiculous process, this low-hanging fruit approach or whatever you want to call it, without resolving important issues for the organisation, is both frustrating and unsustainable,” CSIRO staff association representative and scientist Dr Michael Borgas told the senate committee on Tuesday.

“We will try and find a way forward whatever way we can.”

Last week, the association wrote an open letter to CSIRO chief executive Dr Larry Marshall, the CSIRO board and Industry and Science Minister Greg Hunt formally reporting the rejection of the most recent government pay offer and protesting that “buck-passing” was impeding progress.

“The staff association has written to two chief executives, two board chairs and three government ministers responsible for CSIRO to propose solutions to the bargaining impasse,” secretary Sam Popovski wrote. “In total that is eight key decision-makers who could have at various points enabled us to achieve an outcome acceptable to CSIRO staff.”

But this week, Marshall wrote back indicating there would be no change to the bargaining process from the government side and, by implication, no change to the offer.

“The minister’s direction is not optional,” he wrote.

The negotiators on the CSIRO side are warning that the standoff – and the cuts to science funding and research jobs – will jeopardise Australia’s research reputation, or worse.

“At best, we will miss the opportunities presented to us,” staff delegate Mike Collins told the senate committee. “At worst, we will be thoroughly underprepared for some of the impacts of the significant global challenges that we face as a nation.”

But they now suspect there is even more than the future of Australian science and government scientists’ pay at stake.

At the heart of the stalemate is the federal government’s bargaining rules for the public service, which stipulate that certain working conditions can no longer be included in enterprise agreements.

They also cap any increase in pay at 2 per cent.

CSIRO staff have been asking for 3.5 per cent, a point on which they are still declining to budge, despite having had a pay freeze for three years since the last agreement expired.

Their claim is well above the inflation rate, now about 1.3 per cent. But they cannot claim back pay for the missed increases during the more than two years of stalled talks.

They argue therefore that their pay has effectively gone backwards, that 3.5 per cent spread over the three years would almost match inflation while still not keeping up with their research competitors at universities and in the private sector.

The Saturday Paper understands some staff would be happy to accept 2 per cent and that if there was movement on some other conditions, the association would likely recommend the lower rate.

But so far, nothing is moving on either side.

A fortnight ago, CSIRO staff voted to formally reject the proposed new agreement – which included a 2 per cent pay offer but with a range of other conditions stripped out. About 76 per cent of staff voted in the ballot and, of those, 70.19 per cent favoured rejection. It was the first time CSIRO staff had voted to reject a pay offer.

“There is no pathway forward,” Borgas told the senate committee on Tuesday. “And we have not yet been contacted formally to recommence negotiations or deal with this in any way.”

Since then, the association had been contacted formally, in the form of Larry Marshall’s return correspondence.

The chief executive, whose contract was renewed earlier this year to allow him to complete his “strategy 2020” for overhauling the organisation, also wrote to all staff.

“Dear Team,” he wrote in an email to staff at lunchtime on Wednesday. “I’m disappointed we were unable to secure an approved enterprise agreement and pay rise for staff. Your participation and views are very important. It’s clear all parties involved in the negotiation process have more work to do.”

The management processes and hundreds of job losses reaching back to the 2014 federal budget have been the subject of a series of reports, inquiries and surveys.

A staff survey completed recently reported alarmingly low morale and a review conducted by Ernst and Young criticised the handling of what it called “the unfolding crisis” earlier this year when a leak of a decision on further job losses prompted a staff revolt.

Marshall has rejected the description, saying it related only to the organisation’s media management, not to the state of things overall.

On the union side, the government’s approach to negotiations is being interpreted as an attempt to downgrade basic working conditions by stealth – a kind of indirect introduction of the essence of the old WorkChoices arrangements.

Under the new bargaining rules, managed through the Australian Public Service Commission, some conditions are stripped out of the basic enterprise agreement in a move the CSIRO executive insists is little more than streamlining.

In the CSIRO’s case, the executive’s negotiators are offering to reinsert some of those conditions elsewhere in the organisation’s general policy statements instead, where they say they will remain applicable.

But the union says that would mean they are no longer subject to scrutiny by the industrial umpire.

If successful, the move would likely be used as a precedent across the public sector.

The government also argues this is nothing more than a benign attempt to streamline the agreement.

The staff representatives are suspicious, arguing the conditions would not be industrially enforceable if they aren’t included in the agreement document itself and CSIRO management could change them without consultation.

They also rejected the argument coming from the CSIRO executive that stripping out what they say are two-thirds of the existing clauses and moving them to “a different part of the website”, as Michael Borgas put it, was a form of streamlining.

They said it was simply producing a smaller legally enforceable document and distributing its various elements around other policy documents instead.

“I find it quite insulting really, the way it has been pushed down our throats,” Borgas said.

Shifting elements of the agreement on working conditions into general policy documents also gives greater discretion to managers to interpret what might constitute a breach and removes any right of review by the Fair Work Commission.

Their representatives in the staff association argue that although CSIRO staff are “strongly motivated internally to achieve their science” ahead of being motivated by pay and conditions, some are beginning to struggle.

Worn down by the length of the negotiations, many just want it to be resolved.

Not all CSIRO employees support the union’s hard-line stance and some are concerned it, too, is using the dispute to press the wider point about pay and conditions right across the public sector.

The Saturday Paper has been told that some did not support the industrial action the staff association has led and worry they are caught up in a bigger battle between unions and the government.

But many remain critical of Marshall, who was parachuted into the organisation after decades overseas and has presided over budget cuts and the loss of what the staff association says is one in five jobs.

Staff described it as “a very low trust environment”.

But Marshall’s approach has the ongoing backing of the board and the minister.

At a senate estimates hearing last month, he continued to talk up the organisation’s achievements and future.

“I continue to be both humbled and inspired by our amazing people who, despite many challenging years, continue to focus their efforts on delivering science and solutions that will benefit all Australians,” Marshall told the committee.

For its part, the staff association has also not been universally critical.

“We were happy to say quite publicly that our new minister, Greg Hunt, has been doing many positive things for the organisation yet without having any real new money to operate with,” Borgas said.

“We see a whole lot of goodwill there and opportunities to do positive things – constrained only by a piece of bloody-minded bureaucracy, to be quite frank.”

But in the wake of the Ernst and Young review and a new reference to the Australian National Audit Office, Marshall strenuously defends his managerial approach.

“We know the decisions were the right decisions and we have placed CSIRO on a much more sustainable financial footing going forward,” he said.

This week, he showed no sign he intended to change his approach.

“I am committed to make CSIRO an employer of choice and will continue to work within the parameters consistent with the direction by the minister to provide the best outcome for the staff.”

After more than two years of waiting, it’s now a matter of who blinks first.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 19, 2016 as "Enterprising agreement".

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