It’s not an industrial action that will bring the country to its knees, but a dispute at the Sydney headquarters of the Australia Council for the Arts will likely see strike action in the next two weeks.
Yesterday Australia Council staff voted almost unanimously to take protected industrial action. The Australian Electoral Commission is due to release the official voting figures later today. Central to the dispute is a cut to staffing numbers by 20 per cent since the Rudd Labor Government implemented a 2 per cent efficiency dividend on the Council.
Staff at the Council are angry about reduced conditions and wages, claiming that the 28 positions which haven’t been filled in the last year has led to increased work across all departments.
At the time of the efficiency dividend announcement in May last year, Australia Council CEO Kathy Keele stated that the funding agency were “putting in place measures to maintain our funding for artists and arts organisations by streamlining the organisation and making $2 million in administrative savings”.
But staff feel dejected by the CEO and higher management who are driving a hard bargain in wage negotiations and remained stubborn in not re-filling the vacancies.
Inflaming the situation is the fact that Keele is currently at the Venice Biennale (you can see her Twitter updates here) rubbing shoulders with Ambassador to Italy Amanda Vanstone and “organising artists party”.
Here’s the pick of her Biennale tweets:
@kathyinvenice Organising artists party. Opening tomorrow. All is well.
@kathyinvenice Many of our guests attended the haka which went through the streets of Venice this morning.
@Kathyinvenice St the palazio Grimani with Stefano Carboni giving us a tour!
@Kathyinvenice The sugar piece of Ken Yonetani is so peaceful.
@Kathyinvenice The ludoteca’s works are diverse, important, and totally engaging.
@Kathyinvenice Just about to go to the Ludoteca with the ambassadors.
@Kathyinvenice The heat is so real.
@Kathyinvenice the bells of St Mark’s are overpowering the organ recital! They are deafening and beautiful
@Kathyinvenice Ambassadors Vanstone and Fischer have joined us.
@Kathyinvenice UBS reception very special. Now listening to Bach’s tocata and fugue in St Mark’s. Amazing!
@Kathyinvenice At the Bevilaqua at yoko ono’s exhibition and it is amazing.
Crikey understands that the relationship between staff and the CEO has been strained for sometime but was exacerbated when the efficiency dividend was placed on the agency. It has now led to a breakdown in relations over the wage negotiations.
CPSU Deputy Secretary Nadine Flood told Crikey that the Council “is seriously understaffed and people at all levels are regularly working 12 hours days, plus weekends.”
Flood stated that staff feel “undervalued and insulted by management’s pay offer. It is without doubt one of the lowest ever in the public sector. Management have repeatedly failed to fix this mess so no one should be surprised staff are considering strike action.”
Staff claim that management are trying to broker a deal that would effectively make wages go backwards in real terms. They also claim that management are looking at removing key working conditions and redundancy entitlements as well as removing staff travel for agency workers who need to visit arts organisations across the country.
A spokesperson from the Australia Council told Crikey that the agency is “…continuing to negotiate with the CPSU and staff representatives for a new collective agreement. These negotiations are ongoing. We are keen to conclude an agreement that fairly renumerates employees while working within our tight operating budget.”
The Federal Arts Minister Peter Garrett is also aware of the dispute but will leave the negotiations in the hands of Keele and her management staff.
Until then, you can expect that a few luv-ins at arts venues across the country might have the added spice of a good old fashioned union dispute. Something which should get their hearts racing.