NTEU responds to University of Sydney’s ‘spill and fill’ tactic

A Save Sydney College of the Arts protest.

President of the University of Sydney branch of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) Kurt Iveson spoke to Green Left Weekly’s Rachel Evans about the university’s “spill and fill” tactic.

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What is happening to science administration staff? Have 110 staff been sacked?

The Science Faculty is going through a major change process — known as the “Services Innovation Program for Science” or SIPS — that is not yet finalised. The initial proposal had no net loss of jobs, but proposed that about 110 positions would be made redundant, with new jobs advertised. 

The latest version of the proposal released in early February has about 90 jobs listed for redundancy. The final version is due for release next month.

Will the workers be worse off financially?

A major issue the NTEU has with the proposal is that many of the “new” jobs look suspiciously like the old jobs, but at lower pay levels. So, if staff whose positions have been made redundant apply for the jobs they’re qualified to do, many may find themselves in jobs at lower levels. This will also mean that the work performed by current staff will not be performed. If many of those staff take the redundancy, the university will be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to see good people, with fantastic experience and relationships with academic staff, walk out the door.

What has been the union response?

The NTEU has campaigned strongly against the extent of declassification and redundancy in the proposals. Importantly, there has been fantastic solidarity between academics, administrative staff and technical officers who we represent.

NTEU members circulated a petition calling on the first version of the change to be withdrawn, which gathered around 400 signatures across the Science Faculty. In response, further consultation and revisions to the plan have been made. We also organised a meeting, attended by the Dean and Faculty General Manager, at which members expressed their on-going opposition to core aspects of the proposals.

So far, our efforts have led to a reduction in the number of proposed redundancies. While there has been some movement, it is still far from over. We will continue to escalate the campaign if we don’t get the changes we want.

Is this a new tactic employed by management?

This is the first of a series of “Organisational Design” changes that will roll out across the university in the next couple of years. We can expect more of the same, which is why this fight is so important.

Has this tactic been applied to other departments? What is wrong with the “spill and fill” tactic? 

Sydney College of the Arts (SCA) staff, according to the Revised Draft Plan management put out in December, will also be sacked and have to reapply for their jobs. This is exactly what happened to the science administrative staff.

We’re strongly opposed to the “spill and fill” approach the university wants to take in SCA. Not only does this reduce job insecurity, collegiality and morale, it is also based on the dodgy notion that everyone at SCA should be employed in a generic disciplinary category of visual art, rather than in their specialist disciplines. We just don’t trust senior management to have the deep understanding of the different visual arts disciplines at SCA to make this work.

We’re also opposed to any downgrading of the classification of technical support roles.

Management has cried poor to justify the attempt to close SCA. Are they poor?

This is not a poor university. Full stop.

The NTEU and the CPSU have an Enterprise Bargaining Agreement period this year during which the union can take industrial action. What type of industrial action can staff take in this period and what are their demands? 

The Fair Work Act specifies that you can only take “protected industrial action” during an enterprise bargaining period. Industrial action outside this time without a protected action ballot makes individuals and unions liable to heavy fines. That does not stop us campaigning, fighting, and winning at other times, we just have to take different forms of action.

Our branch is still discussing our priorities for the upcoming round of bargaining, and will be having members’ meetings later this month to decide on our log of claims. Job security, and fights for improved rights for casuals, will be high on our list of priorities.

What issues staff are facing?

Job insecurity, associated with never-ending change processes, is a huge issue for staff across the University. So, too, are casualisation and the precarious situation facing staff employed on casual contracts. We’re seeing continuing dependence on casual labour at the university, not only in teaching, but also in administration.

Sometimes these staff have been treated appallingly. For instance, last year, a group of about 60 casuals in the student centre, who had been promised months of on-going work, were marched into an office and given two weeks’ notice that there would be no more work. We immediately contested this, and had some success in getting our members there redeployed elsewhere in the university. 

If the situation is worsening, will there be a strong industrial response from staff?

Of course, that all depends. Last time there was a series of strikes, in 2013, university management took a very hostile approach to enterprise bargaining, and sought to strip conditions from the Agreement.

We fought back against those cuts, and had big wins — such as the creation of permanent jobs for casual academics, and better training and development opportunities for professional staff. We will fight hard to protect the conditions in our current agreement, and to get further improvements to the working conditions of our members. Staff working conditions are student learning conditions.

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