The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) said the Fair Work Commission’s decision on August 29 to agree to terminate Murdoch University’s enterprise agreement (EA), which covers more than 3000 staff, is extremely disappointing but not unexpected.
The test for terminating an agreement is very low. The agreement must be past its expiry date, negotiations for a replacement agreement must have been unsuccessful, termination must not be against the public interest and it must be considered “appropriate” to do so.
In a statement, the NTEU said: “The way in which this Agreement has been terminated is another example that our laws are badly broken and must change to ensure the just treatment of workers.”
From September 26, Murdoch University will be able to cut wages by 25% to 39%, cut redundancy entitlements, remove regulation of academic workloads, end the right to academic and intellectual freedom, eliminate paid parental leave and remove the current requirement to consult staff before implementing workplace changes.
Murdoch management has given an undertaking that it will maintain a range of key conditions from the now terminated EA, such as pay, superannuation and leave. This undertaking is for six months from the date of effect of the termination.
The NTEU and Murdoch University had been negotiating a new EA since April last year but failed to reach an agreement. The university took an aggressive stance in those negotiations, demanding wide and deep cuts to staff working conditions.
In December, the university applied to terminate the expired EA in what the NTEU called “a coordinated attack on employment conditions by a management team that has completely abandoned all principles of fairness and decency toward staff”. The NTEU has consistently maintained since then that such an extreme action was unnecessary and the university could achieve a fair agreement by taking a sensible negotiating position.
NTEU WA Secretary Gabe Gooding said: “NTEU’s position has always been that Murdoch employees deserve fair and reasonable working conditions, consistent with those that apply elsewhere in the university sector.
“This decision will not change our bargaining position which is to achieve an Agreement that provides efficiency gains without eliminating key rights or entitlements.”
Gooding criticised the $2.8 million Murdoch University had committed to spend on legal fees for the case and actions against the union. She said it is difficult to see how a public institution can justify such an expense, particularly when the university used its $5 million deficit as a reason for the termination application.
“Such a high level of expenditure on legal fees undermines any claim that management might make that urgent change in employment conditions of its workers is needed to address its financial position,” she said.
The union’s same lead negotiators have been able to successfully negotiate or are close to a settlement on new EAs at the other three Western Australian public universities.
“Murdoch employees must be distressed and wondering today why their management could not also settle a deal without seeking to terminate their collective agreement,” Gooding said.