Academic journal article International Journal of Employment Studies

The Changing Roles of Public Sector Unionism

Academic journal article International Journal of Employment Studies

The Changing Roles of Public Sector Unionism

Article excerpt

This article outlines changes in the character of Australian federal public service unions, from in-house staff associations to constituents of the broader union movement. The extent to which the strategies adopted by the union that covers most Australian federal public servants, the CPSU, are part of the agenda for change in the broader union movement or a reaction to changes in public sector administration is investigated. We conclude that although the changes have been in step with the broader union movement, the constant trigger has been government policy. Most significantly, New Public Management policies have imposed particular pressures to the point that the CPSU is now struggling for survival. The impact of the union renewal strategy, and the adoption of the organising model to underpin this strategy, remains uncertain.


Public services in many liberal democracies have been traditionally delivered in accordance with Weberian principles of efficiency gained through bureaucracy (Hughes, 1998). Generally, employee relations have reflected the bureaucratic model with, for example, wages and conditions of work centrally determined and rigid procedures for recruitment and advancement used to protect the principles of merit, equity and tenure. In recent years this style of public sector management has been criticized as rigid, slow and unresponsive in the provisions of services to the public (Hood, 1991; Osborne and Gaebler, 1992). It has been rejected by governments in both developed and developing economies in favour of what is now commonly called New Public Management (NPM) (Hughes, 1998; OECD/PUMA, 1994,1996; World Bank, 1997).

NPM has been described as the transformation of the culture of the public service to an entrepreneurial and performance-focused vision, in which the size and reach of the public sector is reduced and what remains operates within commercial frameworks. The theoretical underpinnings of NPM lie in economic theories, such as public choice and agency theory, in which greater reliance on market forces, a reduced role for government and greater use of contractual arrangements are viewed as producing better economic and societal outcomes (Hughes, 1998). In keeping with this vision, the public sector in Australia has experienced immense change during the last two decades, attempting to transform from large bureaucratic administrations to entrepreneurial and commercial units following private-sector business principles. Parallel to and linked with this managerial development has been the transformation of public sector unions. Once perceived as staff associations, separate and distinct from blue-collar trade unionism and closely aligned with management, public sector unions are now very much part of the broader union movement.

This paper outlines changes in the character of public sector unions and investigates the extent to which the changes are part of the agenda for change in the broader union movement or the extent to which they are a reaction to changes in government policy and public sector administration. It commences with an outline of recent changes and developments in the Australian public sector. Next the changing role of Australian public sector unions is examined, focussing primarily on unions with coverage of the core federal public service. The discussion draws on a range of publications and primary sources, including union archives, publications and interviews with public sector union officials. During 2001 and 2002, interviews were conducted with eight union officials active during the 1970s and 1980s in the two major predecessor unions of the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), the dominant federal public sector union, and with sixteen current activists, staff and officials of the CPSU.


The Federal Public Service

The genesis of the reform in the Australian federal public service can be traced to the 1970s. …

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