Union members at the Bureau of Meteorology took strike action on 19 April as part of an enterprise agreement dispute that started in 2014. Over the course of bargaining, BoM staff have been offered some of the worst deals on pay and conditions in the Australian public service. 

With a workforce of around 1,700, the bureau is a medium size public service agency. Staff are highly specialised. Union density is solid, between 30 and 40 percent across the service, but higher still in front line operational areas. The Community and Public Sector Union has the most members, with Professionals Australia and the Electrical Trades Union also active. 

BoM weather forecasters number around 200 and work on a 24-hour roster to produce forecasts for industry and the public. Hundreds of other staff work in particular scientific fields such as hydrology, climate monitoring, research and development. Forecasters, observers and scientists are complemented by a workforce of around 500 IT and engineering technical workers. 

One of the things that has set BoM apart from other public sector agencies is management’s focus on cutting allowances paid to remote and travelling staff – often a significant component of take-home pay – and an aggressive “streamlining” of workplace conditions. BoM management is pushing harder than most other agencies. Nearly four years after the last agreement expired, CPSU members at the bureau will soon vote in a second protected action ballot to add a new set of work bans to those already being implemented.  

Restrictive bargaining policy

Like all federal public servants, bureau staff are bargaining in the context of the highly restrictive bargaining policy imposed in 2014 by the Australian Public Service Commission. The current version of the policy restricts pay rises to 2 percent per year and prohibits any form of back pay without the approval of the relevant minister. It also requires that all pay increases be offset by “productivity improvements”. Yet the fact that forecast accuracy has been steadily improving with scientific advances, or that the bureau’s forecast offerings have expanded in the last 10 years, doesn’t count under the Catch-22 flavoured accounting rules used by the APSC. 

The open agenda is for agencies to fund low-ball pay offers by cutting staff numbers and increasing work intensity for those remaining. Coupled with regular hiring freezes, this policy perversely encourages the use of agency contract labour.

Initially, the CPSU focused its campaign on the bargaining policy itself. While BoM workers had been bargaining since 2014, by 2015, the whole public service was in dispute. The union coordinated industrial action between multiple agencies to pressure the government to retract the policy. However, the momentum for coordinated action quickly petered out. The pace of bargaining was varied, with some agencies ready to talk while others stalled for years. Aside from the notable exception of the Department of Border Protection and Immigration – where industrial action was lengthy and disruptive until Fair Work shut it down – the union’s campaign lacked a genuine industrial element. 

Bureau offer backfires

At the bureau, progress was slow. Meetings took place, and eventually in 2016 the bureau’s shocking first offer was unveiled – a below inflation pay rise of 4.5 percent over three years, to be funded by attacking particular sections of the workforce. Shift-working forecasters were offered reduced leave loading. Staff in remote areas faced losing the allowances offered as compensation for living in areas with reduced services. Technical staff who spend much of their time on the road would have their travelling allowances replaced with a less generous payment system.

One senior manager explicitly outlined the rationale behind the offer: “We think that people will vote in their own self-interest”. Along with the deal on the table, management rolled out a campaign to paint shift workers as “having it too good for too long”.  

The offer was a mistake from management. To start with, it hit the areas with the highest union density the hardest. It also underestimated the degree of solidarity between the different groups of bureau staff. These crude attempts to divide the workforce were ineffective, and the offer was rejected, nearly 70 percent voting no and following up quickly with a 24-hour strike. 

A second offer was made in February 2017 – similar to the previous one but with a slightly higher pay offer. This too was rejected. 

Until this point, industrial action had been limited to the largely symbolic: a handful of half-day strikes, a few periods when phones or emails went unanswered and the inclusion of statements in email footers. One action that did worry management was the prospect of staff reading a prepared statement about the dispute during live radio crosses. This has led to most radio crosses now being handled by management. 

Industrial response

As 2017 progressed, union members were getting impatient. In Adelaide, a militant delegate started a petition demanding that the union organise real work bans, including bans on travel, maintaining particular observation equipment and even bans on repairing the rain radars. While this strategy wasn’t supported by the union, the demands led to a rethink of the industrial campaign. It was agreed that union members would implement ongoing work bans and irregular rolling stoppages, targeted to cause maximum disruption. 

In July 2017, the irregular stoppages started. They proved to be effective in the forecasting centres, which operate on a 24-hour roster. The stoppages threw rosters into chaos and interfered with the production of routine weather products. Middle-level managers were swamped with extra work.

Unfortunately, the rolling stoppages were not effective at interrupting the flow of forecasts to the public. Management decided that all forecasts would be published, regardless of whether they had received enough attention from forecasters. Even if the quality of the forecast was affected, the public was not to see a break in service. 

However, the mounting industrial pressure did cause management to start to shift. Late in 2017, concessions were announced, including dropping the cuts to shift penalties and reinstating terms cut from the agreement. Remote allowances were grandfathered. But there was still no offer of back pay after nearly four years without a pay increase.

While most other agencies finalised agreements during 2017, a December vote at the bureau rejected the deal. The result was a surprise to most. It was clear that staff didn’t think management’s concessions went far enough. As well, BoM still took a hard line on consultation rights and rights for union delegates.

Where to now? 

It is evident that the action so far has been below the threshold required to move significantly the position of the agency or government. Union militants are currently working on a strategy to expand the range of authorised work bans. The aim is to allow a broader spread of workers to take part, including technical staff, who have so far been unable to participate effectively. A ballot to consider new, more disruptive, actions is on the cards. 

The battle at the bureau is just a small fight against a much wider attack on public service workers. John Lloyd, public service commissioner, has unapologetically pursued an ideological agenda of winding back conditions, capping pay increases and reducing job security.