NTEU fights for rights at Murdoch University

July 7, 2017
NTEU rally
NTEU rally in Perth on July 4.

Members and supporters of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) rallied on July 4 outside the WA Fair Work Commission (FWC) in protest against Murdoch University’s application to terminate the union’s enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA).

This move by university management is unprecedented for a large public institution and has been described by the NTEU as “the nuclear option”.

If the FWC finds in favour of management, the expected impact on about 3600 staff at Murdoch will be immense. Salaries will be cut by up to 40%, paid parental leave will end and the university will no longer be legally compelled to consult the union before making further workplace changes. The NTEU has warned that terminating the EBA would jeopardise 70 of the 110 conditions currently protecting staff.

NTEU general secretary Grahame McCulloch told the rally: “The purpose of Murdoch’s application to terminate the agreement is ultimately, in my view, to remove the union from the process of collective bargaining and ensure that all key employment conditions lie exclusively within management discretion in the future.”

Significantly, present at the rally outside the FWC were representatives of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), whose members at Griffin Coal in Collie also had their EBA scrapped and wages reduced.

A spokesperson for the university told media that management would not seek to make any changes to staff conditions within the first six months of terminating the EBA.

Unsurprisingly, this is no consolation to workers who are threatened with losing nearly half their income. Nor can it be expected that management would adopt a more conciliatory position once they have achieved greater coercive power over the workforce.

This attack on Murdoch staff is seen by many as the thin end of the wedge of a larger agenda by universities to further corporatise their institutions and act more like private businesses than public utilities. In an interview on the ABC, Murdoch HR Director Michelle Narustrang referred to the university as “our company”. It is increasingly apparent the language is much more than a communication hiccup.

The university’s management, under the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association, openly declared its intention to set a common bargaining agenda to seek “simpler less prescriptive Enterprise Agreements, salary offers much closer to the inflation rate and remove a small number of particular inflexibilities”.

Western Australian universities were among the first to enter enterprise negotiations in this round of bargaining. Early in the process, Murdoch University management hired an international law firm with a reputation for union-busting, Seyfarth Shaw.

Seyfarth Shaw is representing supermarket giant Coles in its negotiations with workers; it represented the Victorian Country Fire Authority in its bitter industrial dispute with the United Firefighters Union; and it was used by the former South Australian Coalition state government to press recommendations to the royal commission into union corruption, among other union-busting attempts.

Seyfarth Shaw is representing Murdoch University management in litigation against two NTEU officials. In an attempt to marginalise them from the workers’ struggle, it is seeking to hold them personally liable for the NTEU’s bargaining campaign posters and materials. This case will be heard by the FWC later in the year.

While crying poor, Murdoch University management is investing substantial public money in seeking to terminate the enterprise agreement rather than conducting an effective negotiation and in attempting to compensate for the loss of reputation by producing a very expensive but dull advertising campaign, among other non-academic, non-educational, non-scientific moves.

Vice-chancellors (VCs) in Australia are among the most highly paid in the world. An analysis by Higher Ed Services last year revealed the average remuneration package in 2015 of a VC was $873,571 a year. The NTEU claims the average is now closer to $1 million a year.

As the NTEU national president Jeannie Rea said last year: “I would say that the VCs’ salary packages continue to climb at rates unrelated to their performance in many cases, and totally unrelated to staff pay rises.”

Murdoch University has had its fair share of mismanagement in the past few years. Last July, former VC Richard Higgot was found to have engaged in misconduct and serious misconduct by the Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC). His predecessor, John Yovich resigned after most of the university’s deputy VCs left because of concerns over his leadership. The university Senate remained almost unchanged throughout these events.

Attacks on workers and their unions require broader awareness and resistance.

Since the introduction of university fees and the corporatisation of university management, the rift between the social function of higher education and its actual role is increasing. However, the latest attack on university staff members and collectives is unprecedented.

Community meetings are being held by concerned residents to not only support the NTEU and students’ fight for their rights on campus, but to also raise broader community consciousness of the need for open, democratic and free education.

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