A history of CPSU

Updated 22/06/2023

This article, written in 1985 by Jim McDonald as part of the VPSA Centenary celebrations, chronicles the the first hundred years of the CPSU.

For most of the 20th century the Public Service Union in Victoria has fought to obtain a satisfactory, independent industrial tribunal, and this story provides a focus for our history.

A thousand public servants crammed into the Athenaeum Hall in Collins Street, Melbourne after work on June 17, 1885, to form the union which, it was hoped, "would benefit all and abolish grievances". At the same time the meeting was at pains to affirm that its objects were "thoroughly consistent with perfect loyalty to the Government and the Public Service Act".

A VPSA Council was subsequently established comprising ten representatives from each of the government departments in the colony. The union paid a full-time Secretary to manage the affairs of the Association. It rented an office at the Melbourne Athenaeum.

Although during the previous fifty years in the life of the colony there had been a number of occasions when civil servants might have combined to form a union, their grievances - which rarely received public support - were handled in an ad hoc fashion by deputations and petitions to the colony's political leaders.

Generally public servants went along with the prevailing notion that public servants should not unionise as such organisation was considered prejudicial to their loyalto to the government. Thus, for example, salary cuts in the late 1850's and retrenchments in 1869 - which would not be tolerated by the union today - did not see the rise of a movement.

Considerable dissatisfaction followed the 1883 Public Service Act which public servants had hoped would address their career structure, salary levels and other terms and conditions of their employment. The new union campaigned not only for improved salaries but also for adequate travelling allowances for officers on government business, three weeks annual leave and payment for overtime.

The 1880's boom was not reflected in salary increases for public servants but when the economy crashed in the great depression of the 1890's the VPSA submitted reluctantly to government measures.

In the face of considerable public pressure to reduce the service, the Associations arguments against cuts were doomed to failure. Salaries were cut by up to fifteen percent and, like their counterparts in later years, while they were lucky enough to retain their jobs, the hardships endured at the hands of the government were never forgotten.

Unlike the 1930's, the union did not maintain its organisational momentum during this time. However, after the main period of the depression there was much activity by various groups in raising grievances directly with the politicians since it was parliament which determined their conditions and salary.

One Labor Member in the Legislative Assembly noted in 1901 that: "A great deal of time of the House was taken up with the grievances of public servants." Echoing a demand which gained greater voice over ensuing years, but did not reach fruition until 1946, he called for the establishment of a Public Service Board which would include an elected representative of the public servants.

Four years later the organisational revival of the public servants began with the formation of the Draughtsmen's Association. Later, providing a model for other combinations, it enlarged its membership to include all professional officers.

Throughout the next few years a number of sectional organisations emerged to pick up the various issues affecting the service. By 1913 they included Associations covering the professional, clerical, general, penal, mental hospital employees, printers, a number of teachers organisations, foresters, inspectors and dairy supervisors. This great diversity of groups reflects the variety of occupations which characterise the public service today.

However the need for a unified voice was stronger than the tendency to sectionalise and these associations affiliated in 1913 to form the Victorian State Service Federation, which allowed each of the constituent bodies autonomy over issues which were relative to their members alone but which provided a unified voice for those issues which affected all members.

This arrangement is reflected still in the current structure of the VPSA (as of 1985) where five branches are represented: Administrative, Clerical, Technical, General and Professional.

The principle of an independent board with a service representative on it, raised in the new state parliament in 1901, was adopted in a policy calling for an "Appeals Board" whose functions were not only to review decisions affecting classifications and disciplinary charges but also to determine salary and employment conditions. The call was for a board to replace the Public Service Commissioner in whose hands those powers lay subject to the Governor-in-Council.

During 1917, tensions between the constituent associations of the Federation, which accompanied the expansion of the union into every sector of the service, led to a reorganisation granting a stronger central voice to the council. The solutions adopted did not adequately satisfy the Associations and in 1919 a breakaway league was formed by the clerical and professional divisions of the Federation.

Sustained negotiations between the Associations resulted in the formation of the Public Service Union with thirteen Associations constituting the reorganised union. The conditions placed upon reaffiliation by the Clerical division, which was the largest of the Associations, was that the VPSA should concentrate on a campaign for superannuation and the establishment of a "classification board", and these became the central issues for the Union in its first two years.

Lack of progress in obtaining such an industrial tribunal led Victorian Public Servants to attempt to access the federal arbitration system which the union saw as a readymade model for the system it was fighting to obtain in Victoria.

On November 12, 1923 the Victorian Public Service Union was disbanded and a Victorian Branch of the Australian Public Service Association set up. APSA applied to the Federal Conciliation and Arbitration Court and was granted registration in March 1924. The main objective of the formation of the Victorian Branch of APSA had been to obtain access to the Federal arbitration system. State Governments, however, challenged the APSA's registration and in 1924 APSA was de-registered.

Following this dissapointment in the Federal area APSA turned back its attention to obtaining a Board to fix salaries and conditions. It set up an Industrial Tribunal Campaign Committee to work for the establishment of such a body. The Branch at this stage set up a Trades Benefit Society, the objective of which was to offset price increases and the cost of living.

Another major objective since 1913 had been the creation of a superannuation scheme. After 12 years of campaigning the Superannuation Act of 1925 was finally passed and a Superannuation Board, including an elected representative, was established. The union was dismayed by the election of a teacher, Ronald McDonald, a nominee of the Teachers' Union, defeating the APSA's own nominee. At least a precedent for a Public Service Board with an elected representative now existed.

The Great Depression

1930 was a bad year for the whole country with up to a third of the workforce in some areas losing their jobs. Public Servants, who had not received any substantial increase since the first world war, while retaining their jobs, suffered a number of cutbacks.

APSA had agreed to reductions in salary, provided the burden of cuts was to be spread equitably throughout the whole workforce. Some of the members in the lower classifications felt they were sold out and resigned from the Association. APSA justified its position by pointing out that it had no other choice and that the cut-backs saved jobs.

These measures had been introduced by the Hogan Labor Government. When it faced elections in 1932, APSA and the Victorian Teachers Union formed a Teachers and Public Servants Defence League to campaign against the Premiers' Plan which the State Premiers had drawn up in response to the depression on the advice of the English Conservative Economist, Sir Otto Neyemeyer, especially where it argued for salary reductions. The Labor Government was subsequently defeated at the polls.

One of the more significant industrial gains during this period, despite the setbacks, was won in 1933 when the Association obtained increases in annual sick leave credits of 8 days full pay and 8 days half pay, cumulative and retrospective to 1901.

After an intense and acrimonious campaign, salaries were finally restored to pre-depression levels in 1936. The Victorian Public Service gained this result before any of the other state services.

Although membership grew steadily throughout this period, the ability of APSA to defend and promote the interests of its members was sorely tried during the depression and there was some membership dissatisfaction. For a short time there was a breakaway group in the Penal Department. Strong moves for a seperate union also emerged in the Clerical Division. A poll was conducted among APSA members in the Clerical Division and among clerks who had not joined the Association at all. The proposal it contained to form a seperate body was defeated by an extremely narrow majority.

Nevertheless, the plebiscite among the clerks led to a complete review of the rules and a re-organisation of the Association in 1939.

The new VPSA quickly enjoyed progress in its desire to obtain an industrial tribunal when the Dunstan Government, in a coalition with the Labor Party, reluctantly replaced the Public Service Commissioner with a Public Service Board. It lacked the independence and scope for which the union had long agitated.

The new Public Service Act in 1940 did provide for a three person board, including a Chairman, a Government member and a member elected by the officers of the Public Service. Any recommendation of this body was subject to the approval of the Governor-in-Council, so that the union's dream of removing industrial relations from Parliament still had to be realised. The VPSA made it clear that it accepted this Baord "as only the first instalment toward a really independent tribunal".

In 1941, the VPSA made cost of living increases its major objective for the year. The union's initial success, following formal recognition by the new Board, was a review of salaries, the first since the first world war.

Industrial Tribunal Sets Salaries

The notion of an industrial tribunal had received the support of the Labor Party since the beginning of the century. When the Government of John Cain Senior was elected in 1946 the promise to establish a Board whose every decision was not subject to approval by the Government of the day was honoured in the first year of his ministry. Salary increases and a major revision of the determinations and regulations which set out the terms and conditions of public servants were effected.

In the past thirty-nine years the Association has strongly affirmed the worth of the industrial relations system set up by the Cain Government in 1946, although it has been frequently critical of decisions reached by the Board and of delays in the processing of claims which the union has submitted to it.

During that period, there has been a number of industrial problems, but both the Board and the Union's Leaders have celebrated good relations between them. In the past, the VPSA has regarded one of the major reasons for this harmony as lying in the presence of its nominee on the Board, elected to represent officers of the Public Service.

The report of Sir Henry Bland on the Board of Inquiry into the Victorian Public Service recommended in 1974 that all the Board members should be appointed by the Governor-in-Council. The VPSA succesfully argued against the inclusion of this recommendation in the Public Service Act of 1974.

In its revision of the Public Service act in 1984, the Government of John Cain Junior left the Board intact. Through the new Ministry of Industrial Affairs, however, there is a much more active role in the representation of Government policy before the Board. The Ministry also plays an active role in the mediation and settlement of disputes, not only where sections of the membership take direct action in the face of unresolved issues but also when an impasse is reached in negotiations between the Association and Officers from the Board Secretariat. Some matters involving general government industrial relations policies have been negotiated through the Ministry and endorsed by the Board.

Jim McDonald joined the staff of the VPSA in 1980 and was the Senior Industrial Officer for the Professional Branch at the time of writing this history. Jim completed a Masters degree with a history thesis on teacher unions in Victoria and has maintained a strong interest in labour history. His grandfather, Joe McDonald, was General President of the VPSA from 1939 to 1943 and the first Deputy Elected Member of the Public Service Board.

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