Less than a week after federal education minister Simon Birmingham urged universities to follow the example of Murdoch University in West Australia in terminating its enterprise agreement (EA), vice chancellors at another two universities launched actions designed to undermine staff unions and collective bargaining.
On September 5, in a clear pretext to have a non union ballot, University of Sydney VC Michael Spence launched an Enterprise Agreement Staff Opinion Poll, which asked University of Sydney staff (including non-union members) if they would be prepared to “vote in a future formal ballot on the next enterprise agreement that will contain the terms and benefits outlined in the University's proposals”.
The poll followed the rejection by the NTEU of the management pay offer, which would deliver a real pay cut and would fail to address the union’s concerns around job security and rights for casual staff.
In a win for staff and the NTEU, a majority (61%) of Sydney University staff voted No. This was a strong result, considering staff were given until midnight to vote and were threatened that enterprise bargaining would be suspended if management’s proposal was rejected.
On September 4, James Cook University management announced it would hold a non-union ballot from September 13-15. James Cook University NTEU Branch President Jonathan Strauss told Green Left Weekly that NTEU and management had been negotiating for 16 months.
Strauss explained that JCU management’s pay offer would deliver a real pay cut of 2.5% or more, when measured against inflation. “Teaching workloads would be intensified and the span of hours extended into the evening, which would directly attack penalty rates. Management also want to remove restrictions on casual appointment, undermining job security at JCU.”
In a move likely to be very unpopular with staff, management also want to remove the additional “grace and favour” leave days between Christmas and New Year and force them to be taken as annual leave.
“Management have held a series of forums, where their proposals have been met with anger from staff. JCU staff are very distrustful of senior management over the way they have handled job cuts and restructuring,” Strauss said.
He added that management has not said what they will do if staff vote No, but this won’t deter the union from action. “We are activating our members in Townsville and Cairns and we are increasingly confident of defeating the non union ballot with a big No vote.”
In response to the non-union ballot, the union has already held a stop work meeting in Townsville, and another will be held in Cairns, along with a series of union forums for staff. Strauss told GLW that staff have been informed by contract cleaners and security staff that they have been instructed by management to take down anti-management posters around the campuses.
Murdoch University management successfully applied to the Fair Work Commission to have their EA terminated on August 29. The agreement covers more than 3000 staff.
From September 26, Murdoch University staff will revert to the inferior Higher Education Award. The award cuts wages by 25-39%, cuts redundancy entitlements, removes regulation of academic workloads, ends the right to academic and intellectual freedom, undermines paid parental leave and removes the current requirement to consult staff before implementing workplace change. A written undertaking has been given by Murdoch to maintain pay and some conditions – but only for six months.
Birmingham told a Higher Education Summit on August 30 that the opportunity offered by the Murdoch decision “should be seized, and hopefully can be replicated elsewhere” in the university sector.
The federal government is looking for a way to force universities to accept the cuts in education funding. Birmingham has told university managements that if they replicated Murdoch’s decision, they would absorb the May budget cuts of $2.8 billion to university funding and a proposed 4.9% cut in federal funding for teaching.