NTEU ‘deal’ fails to protect job security amid crisis

The NTEU on strike at the University of Sydney in 2017. Photo: Peter Boyle

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) national executive released its “National Jobs Protection Framework” on May 13 following negotiations with university managements. Members are now debating the proposal before it goes to a membership vote, with many doubtful that it sets out to do what it claims to.

“Higher education and university research have suffered because of public funding cuts for four decades,” casualised academic Markela Panegyres told Green Left. “A neoliberal approach meant that universities have relied on ever-increasing international student tuition fees and corporatised universities.

“The teaching ratio of staff to students has nearly doubled. More than 100,000 of the sector’s workers are casuals, working contract to contract, and tuition revenue has become the source of half of the university research funds.”

The COVID-19 lockdown has brought the sector’s reliance on international students into sharp relief. Many international students cannot start or continue their studies. Universities’ projected revenue has fallen by between $3–5 billion a year.

In addition, the federal government has chosen not to allocate emergency COVID-19 funding to the sector nor to university teaching or research.

The NTEU executive has criticised this, but also sought negotiations with management. It succeeded in getting support for this approach at an April 24 meeting of national councillors, on the condition that any outcome would be “demonstrably better in terms of protection of job security and maintenance of living wages, than allowing managerial prerogative to go unfettered”.

The proposed framework being put to members fails that test and should be rejected.

The union’s executive argues that its plan offers some job and income protections, orients job cuts to voluntary separation packages and, at least, reduces short-term job losses.

This is outweighed, however, by the burden placed on university workers, particularly casuals, who remain stuck in their precarious employment arrangements and does not challenge the power of employers or the government.

Several of the framework’s provisions disadvantage workers, even more so than was canvassed in the April 24 meeting. They include pay reductions of up to 15% for continuing and fixed-term staff, including a 10% pay cut (excluding the first $30,000 earned). Also included in the framework are cuts in hours and deferred pay rises, which will hit the lowest-paid the hardest.

Furthermore, the union executive’s draft agreement seems to shift many universities, which have forecast they will run deficits this year of 15–20%, into the category able to claim the highest cost-saving measures from workers.

Only rulings from a management-union “expert panel” might restrict what the employers can do, while local committees can only monitor this.

The pressure on university managements has also lessened. Talk of stopping capital and various non-salary expenditure has been replaced by talk of “reasonable” and “where appropriate” reductions.

While forced redundancies are restricted to circumstances where there is “a reduction in work”, with local committees having a say in change of management, Charles Sturt University branch president Helen Masterman-Smith told Green Left that vice-chancellors are already pushing for job cuts. “Vice-Chancellor Andy Vann was already pushing mass redundancies before COVID-19,” she said, adding that Vann led the VCs’ negotiating team with the NTEU.

“Workers are asking why they should take a 15% pay cut just to ensure voluntary redundancies come before any forced redundancies — a provision already in our current Agreement that management are choosing not to exercise. Staff also fear it will mean taking a pay cut on top of losing their jobs in the context of a major downsizing restructure.”

The framework offers to bring some casualised and fixed-term workers back into employment and maintain jobs for others. But this is only for “available work” and does not guarantee previous income levels. Under the framework, work performed by casuals can also be reallocated to permanent staff who have lost work.

Casual academic Pablo Leighton told Green Left: “The Framework does not protect casuals’ jobs. Period. After decades of neoliberalism, now made extreme with the crisis, the hardest hit will be casualised workers.”

He went further: “The whole system must be radically transformed, from the top, to make higher education a fundamental right. This is now common sense for the majority of Australians regarding all essential sectors of society. Universities must be re-nationalised”.

Without a serious fight with the government for funding and to force university managements to slash executive benefits and spend from the institution’s reserves, workers are going to be the casualties.

While NTEU officials said they would lead a fight against any management cuts “outside the Framework”, they have not led with a general fight for jobs across the sector, opting to focus on collaboration through negotiation.

A social and industrial fight across the sector for jobs and an income guarantee could provide the union with opportunities for organising, mobilising, building student and community support and securing a better outcome.

[The NTEU is organising a national day of action on May 21, the day after the national council meets to vote on the Framework agreement. Jonathan Strauss is a member of the NTEU.]

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