Staff Association Secretary Sam Popovski reviews a year that will be forever linked to the outbreak of coronavirus but for CSIRO also included the conclusion of bargaining and an unprecedented budget boost.
ALL TOO OFTEN DESCRIBED as unprecedented, there’s no denying that 2020 will be remembered as a year like no other in recent memory. The outbreak of the novel coronavirus dominated throughout and turned lives across the world upside down.
As much as the last twelve months will form a record of restrictions, privations, sorrow and loss; the year just passed will also come to be remembered as a time when the qualities of resilience, compassion and solidarity came to the fore.
The year began in dramatic fashion, with the intensification of seasonal bushfires in Eastern Australia developing into a full-blown crisis, with New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia hardest hit. The role of CSIRO science soon took centre stage, with the Federal Government tasking the organisation to marshal its bushfire research expertise both to better aid emergency responders and provide an explanation for the bushfire crisis to a shocked Australian public.
However, the undeniable role of climate change in exacerbating fire danger meant that challenges to scientific integrity were never far away; the potential for political influence on CSIRO’s bushfire work was later revealed in March during a feisty Senate Estimates hearing.
Meanwhile, reports in early January of a mystery respiratory illness in the Chinese city of Wuhan had by mid-February led to the announcement that CSIRO would refocus zoonotic disease research on the novel coronavirus; as part of a global effort coordinated by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).
As the COVID-19 outbreak rapidly transformed into a global pandemic, CSIRO further mobilised research and staff in response to the virus. By the end of March however – in scenes replicated across industries around Australia – CSIRO workplaces closed and staff shifted to remote working. Notable exceptions included those staff focused on coronavirus research and vaccine manufacture; the Government announcing a funding boost and name change for the Australian Animal Health Laboratory, rebranded as the Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness.
Most of the country remained largely shut down throughout Easter and through to the end of April due to the virus; and while some parts of the economy started to tentatively reopen throughout May, most CSIRO staff remained largely working from home. The organisation’s workforce response, which was constructively aided throughout by Staff Association representatives, was rated highly in an April all staff survey.
The formation of a working group – comprised of Staff Association delegates and members from across the country – informed the union’s engagement with Executives around the impact of COVID-19 on the CSIRO workforce. Working group members met every week throughout the year, providing feedback from colleagues and direction for Staff Association representatives in regular meetings with management.
Three issues originally identified by working group members that were subsequently transformed into significant achievements included access to leave provisions, resource support for remote working and the development of site-specific Covid-safe plans.
The contribution of the working group spanned the first national shutdown in April, through the development and release of plans to gradually return to workplaces in May and the response to a second Covid outbreak in Melbourne from July that led to the adoption of restrictions in Victoria which were only (partially) relaxed in November.
Following the defeat of Executive’s plan for a unilateral determination and the commencement of formal negotiations last November, the progress of bargaining for a new CSIRO Enterprise Agreement (EA) always promised to be a key focus for Staff Association members in 2020.
Union negotiators made early progress with all existing EA clauses considered in early March, with greater clarity on key bargaining issues emerging by the end of the same month. While the impact of coronavirus might have ordinarily led to delays in the process, both Staff Association and management representatives displayed the requisite dedication and concentration to enable progress in negotiations.
Despite the imposition of a Government-inspired, six-month deferral for a future wage increase, Staff Association members were polled in April and recorded strong support for an EA proposal and directed union negotiators to recommend a ‘yes’ vote in any upcoming staff ballot.
However – despite Executive promises of an iterative approach to approval from Government – progress towards an all staff vote was delayed throughout May, June and July as the EA proposal languished with the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC). An all CSIRO ballot was finally held in August and the outcome revealed overwhelming support for the EA proposal.
Final regulatory signoff from the Fair Work Commission arrived early last month, clearing the pathway for a seamless replacement of existing arrangements with a new EA coming into operation on 16 November. The new EA was delivered on time and locks in legal protections for CSIRO working conditions until 2023.
While 2020 featured none of the large-scale job cuts experienced in years past, there was no shortage of uncertainty relating to CSIRO employment and funding. A restructure with significant redundancies in the Energy Business Unit was announced in mid-February, only for the process to be paused in April as the Covid outbreak gathered pace and then later restarted in June.
Senate Estimates in March revealed a contracting boom at CSIRO due to the impact of the Average Staffing Level cap. Staff Association analysis of jobs data obtained in June indicated that CSIRO headcount looked set to decline by ten per cent in the twelve months to July.
Chief Executive Larry Marshall warned that CSIRO faced a funding shortfall due to the financial impact on coronavirus on external earnings, later using a National Press Club address in August to launch a new missions program aimed at solving national challenges and contributing to the economic recovery from the pandemic.
Separate restructures in the Agriculture and Food business unit and Health Safety and Environment function meant the spectre of job cuts remained amid the bleak funding outlook. However, CSIRO was the recipient of a $459.2 million budget bailout as part of a big-spending Federal Budget in October aimed squarely at rebuilding the damage wrought by coronavirus.
Staff Association efforts to protect members saved jobs in both Energy and Agriculture and Food. The year ended with on a positive note with news that one of CSIRO’s most distinguished talents – Dr Cathy Foley – would take up the reins as Australia’s new Chief Scientist in early 2021.
2020 introduced new ways for the Staff Association to stay connected, with members, delegates and organisers frequently meeting through video conference. The Staff Association’s new website has kept us informed and enabled new members to join our community easily.
As we head in 2021, we recognise the tremendous contribution of so many Staff Association representatives and members to get through a tough year and we look forward to strongly working together in the best interests of staff and CSIRO in the new year.
Sam Popovski is the Secretary of the CSIRO Staff Association.