Staff Association President Dr Michael Borgas looks back on an eventful 2013 and examines the challenges facing CSIRO and the Staff Association over the next twelve months.
CSIRO HAS ENDURED a tumultuous twelve months, by any reckoning. The challenges faced by the organisation were significant and look set to continue into the new year.
As most of us wind down for the summer break, it’s worthwhile to look back on the issues that have made waves at CSIRO in 2013 and review the assistance that Staff Association officials and organisers have provided to members.
The year began with the announcement of an independent investigation into bullying and harassment at CSIRO. Led by Emeritus Professor Dennis Pearce AO, the inquiry examined current and historical allegations of bullying and harassment. The Staff Association’s submission to the Pearce inquiry made the point that individual cases were often made more complex by a culture of silence.
International Women’s Day was celebrated throughout CSIRO workplaces around the country and CMSE Chief – and Staff Association member – Dr Cathy Foley was recognised as NSW Premier’s Woman of the Year.
The celebrations at CMSE were short-lived however, with the tragic news that four recently retired colleagues – Dr Tony Farmer, Dr Gerry Haddad, Dr Don Price and Dr John Dunlop – had all perished in a helicopter accident south of Sydney.
Cuts hurt CSIRO
CSIRO’s Annual Directions Statement, released by in April by Chief Executive Megan Clark, included the announcement of deep cuts to research and operations – with the likely loss of more than 200 jobs – the most significant number of job cuts in over a decade.
Staff Association delegates and organisers went on to spend many months supporting members affected by the job cuts and keeping management accountable during the redundancy round.
The human cost of the cuts was mitigated in small part due to improvements to voluntary redundancy substitution – negotiated during the last bargaining campaign – that allowed more than 70 employees to continue their careers at CSIRO.
August saw the release of the first report of the Pearce inquiry into bullying and harassment in CSIRO. Professor Pearce determined that while the organisation needed to become more proactive in dealing with allegations of unreasonable behaviour, there was no evidence to suggest the problem is widespread or systematic.
The Federal Election loomed over much of the public policy debate during 2013. The Staff Association developed a list of five science priorities in an effort to put public sector research on the agenda.
We spoke with the major parties, independents and a selection of candidates in key electoral contests, asking them to stand up for publicly funded science and innovation.
Following repeated calls from the Staff Association to address concerns about the Matrix, CSIRO management announced the Organising Arrangement Review. The Staff Association’s survey into the Matrix attracted over 1,000 responses and revealed deep dissatisfaction and the need for urgent improvement.
In October, the second jobs bombshell of the year landed: CSIRO declared a hiring freeze affecting term, contract and casual employees. While CSIRO maintained the decision was independent, there could be little doubt that the Executive Team had one eye on similar recruitment restrictions – announced on the same day – imposed by the new Government across the Australian Public Service.
Bargaining campaign begins
Finally, the union’s Enterprise Bargaining campaign kicked off. The current agreement nominally expires in August next year. Staff Association members have overwhelmingly endorsed the union’s bargaining position, and we have written to management requesting that negotiations begin no later than mid February.
So what are the challenges facing Staff Association members and our science collective in the year ahead?
Bargaining will be tough. Maintaining pay and working conditions are always important. However with the Federal Government’s Commission of Audit tipped to recommend swingeing cuts across the public sector, protecting jobs at CSIRO will be paramount.
Sadly, we should prepare for the further fracturing of government science: a lack of growth funding; competitive versus block grants; funding new initiatives in favour of established capabilities and broad objectives.
The rise of managerialism – at the expense of collaboration – looks set to continue. That could mean increased numbers of high or mid-level management; more complex output and resolution pathways; less consultation and transparency.
Not to mention increasing bureaucracy and red tape at the expense of research. Greater reporting requirements; less devolved responsibility and trust; diminished respect for diversity and debate; reduced risk-taking and less of the head space critical for innovation.
Our response to these challenges is also our greatest strength – the collective approach. This is never about imposing ‘group think’ – it’s about supporting each other.
We know it works. Whether it’s through sharing ideas, collaborative proposals, implementation and peer review, cohesion of skills and functions; so much good science involves breaking down hierarchies and working together.
In the workplace, the results speak for themselves. As a union of science workers, we’ve helped to maintain competitive pay, decent working conditions, plus rights and protections for individual employees and the workforce as a whole.
The union collective also helps align science to social goals and to define science discourse – for example what is useful to society beyond commercialisation.
Throughout a challenging year, the Staff Association has maintained relevance and utility in often difficult circumstances.
Not only must we do the same in 2014, but we will need to convince more of our colleagues at CSIRO that our approach has value and merit and encourage them to join the Staff Association. And in this crucial task – growing our union in the workplace – we all have a role to play.
Thankyou to all of my fellow officials of the Staff Association – councillors, delegates and health and safety representatives – all volunteers and demonstrating that extra commitment that is so critical in supporting our wider membership.
My thanks to our Secretary Sam Popovski, Lead Organiser Paul Girdler, and all the organisers and support workers employed by the Staff Association, for all of your efforts.
Finally, a big thank you to all the members of the Staff Association. Your continued support and commitment makes everything that our union does, possible.
Best wishes for a safe and relaxing holiday season to all of your family and friends.
Dr Michael Borgas
CSIRO Staff Association President