Relations between Australian scientists and the government haven’t improved since last year’s protest over spending cuts.

Relations between Australian scientists and the government haven’t improved since last year’s protest over spending cuts.

CSIRO Staff Association

Australian researchers plan slowdown to protest stalled contract negotiations

The Australian government and a big part of its research workforce are headed for a showdown. Barring a breakthrough in negotiations over a new employment agreement at a meeting on 29 April, staff at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) could start skipping meetings with managers and ignoring their phone messages, refusing to fill in time sheets, and working strictly to specified hours. These industrial actions could escalate to strikes.

"These are not workers who go on strike at the drop of a hat; it takes a lot to get them into a situation where they feel they need to take action," says Anthony Keenan, a spokesman for the CSIRO Staff Association, which is affiliated with the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU).

In response to a query from ScienceInsider, CSIRO spokesman Huw Morgan wrote in an e-mail: "We’re aware of the comments regarding industrial action by the CPSU. Our objective remains to develop an agreement that supports our future strategy, reflects the commitment of our staff and maintains our position as an attractive employer."

CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, and the CSIRO Staff Association have been at loggerheads since an employment contract, called the Enterprise Agreement, expired in August. A large and important part of the nation's research effort hangs in the balance. CSIRO manages more than 50 research centers working on everything from crop improvement to astronomy. About 50% of CSIRO's 5200 eligible employees belong to the CSIRO Staff Association. Membership is voluntary, but the association includes research scientists, technicians, postdocs, support staff, and "quite a few senior managers," Keenan says.

Negotiations are stuck on numerous points. Management wants to increase working hours and cut holidays without any adjustments to compensation, Keenan says. CSIRO also wants to reduce severance payments for those whose jobs are eliminated due to budget cuts. “They want to make it quicker and cheaper to get rid of you,” he says. 

The previous Enterprise Agreement—still in force pending adoption of a replacement—also includes 40-plus clauses covering criteria for performance-based pay increases, details of flextime arrangements, and other conditions of employment. Under the agreement, disputes involving these clauses must be referred to Australia's Fair Work Commission for arbitration. Keenan says management wants to remove about half of these clauses, leaving these issues to management discretion. "There would be no obligation for management to consult staff or reach an agreement," he says.

The association put its proposals for a new agreement on the table in December 2013, 8 months before the current agreement expired. After more than a year of fruitless negotiations, on 16 April more than 88% of the staff association members who voted approved the job actions, which could eventually include work stoppages of between 1 and 24 hours at a time.

“At CSIRO, like at other government labs, staff are very dedicated, and their dedication is being taken for granted," Keenan says.

It's the latest sign of friction between the research community and the government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who took power in September 2013. He initially decided against appointing a science minister, making it the first time since 1931 the post had been vacant, before agreeing last December to add science to the industry minister's title. His government cut projected CSIRO funding over the next 4 years by AU$115 million, or 16%, leading to hundreds of job losses and curtailment of the research agenda. The cuts sent CSIRO researchers to the streets in protest.       

Keenan is not optimistic about the next round of negotiations. Job actions "are likely to take effect on the 30th," he says. He also worries that the government’s next budget, due out in May, will contain more bad news. "There is no guarantee that the organization's funding won't be cut again," he says.

With reporting by Leigh Dayton.