Strike brings VU management to the negotiation table

Victoria University Vice Chancellor Liz Harman

After a successful strike and picket line on August 8, Victoria University’s (VU) vice chancellor, Liz Harman, agreed to negotiate on pay and conditions.

Until then, senior management had demanded that promised pay rises this year be in return for abandoning regulation of workloads in the current enterprise bargaining round. The National Tertiary Education Union Branch (NTEU) has now suspended its bans on releasing results. Stood down union members have been reinstated.

In the face of senior management’s continued provocation and intransigence, VU staff escalated their industrial campaign to achieve terms already agreed to in June 2009.

A 24-hour strike for fair pay and conditions was called on Open Day, August 8, which is VU’s major marketing day. A picket line put staff’s case for quality education and student support to prospective students and their families.

The strike followed industrial action imposing bans on releasing mid-year results, in an attempt to pressure senior management to the negotiating table.

Senior management had agreed to start negotiations for the enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) process for the period January 2010-June 2011 by no later than June 2009, and to include future pay rises to apply in 2010 and 2011. When nothing had happened by early January, the NTEU wrote to Harman to start the process.

In March, the union provided a full log of claims. But the process was not begun.

In private meetings, Harman told the NTEU no pay rise was possible. In May, the union won overwhelming support for a ballot to impose the bans and engage in further strike action if necessary.

Management claimed the bans would disadvantage students. Just the reverse was true. Staff exempted any results needed for graduation, visa requirements, supplementary exams and fail results in prerequisite subjects. The inconvenience for students was minimal.

The bans were delayed initially across the board, but it was decided that seven staff in the Faculty of Business and Law would continue to withhold results. These staff ran the core first year subjects.

Management’s response, however, was draconian. They stood down the seven without pay.

On July 20, management finally began the formal EBA process. They reiterated the claim that no pay rise was possible in 2010 by Council Budget decision. They said no salary rise would be discussed at all until they had fully canvassed all the condition matters first.

At a meeting a week later, the possibility of a pay rise this year suddenly appeared without any reference to the claimed Council Budget decision.

But any such discussion of pay was conditional on the NTEU conceding “other matters”, including changing academic workload regulation, extending general staff span of hours and allowing hours averaging over a year, excluding “senior” staff from some or all of the EBA, and increasing managerial control over a wide range of conditions.

These concessions were not part of the 2009 agreement about pay rises in 2010 and 2011.

What was left out was acknowledgement that Harman had imposed a workload tightening in January, in breach of the existing agreement. The union declared a dispute and took the VU management to Fair Work Australia (FWA).

From February to June, VU tried to stall and subvert this process by initially challenging the validity of the FWA commissioner to hear the case. When that was lost, it tried to delay, saying it didn’t have time to prepare.

When that failed and the case was heard, the commissioner ruled in favour of the union and directed VU to administer the original workload agreement retrospectively.

VU then sought a stay of execution of the order in order to appeal. It appealed and lost.

Management has argued VU does not have the money to give staff a pay rise, but clearly it has plenty to spend on the expensive legal team for these court challenges. It had enough money to contract an expensive report on how to make savings by cutting administrative staff.

It is understood that there is a healthy budget surplus, more than enough to fulfill 2009 pay promises. Yet attacks on both general and academic staff have been a feature of Harman’s leadership and the senior management team she has assembled.

Harman came to the university in 2003 and has had her tenure extended twice by Council.

In 2001, VU’s academic salaries ranked 16 out of 38 in Australia and were $314 a year above the average. General staff salaries ranked 15 out of 37 and were $200 a year above the average.

Today, academic salaries are ranked 34 out of 38 universities and are $5359 less a year than the average. General staff salaries rank 35 out of 37 and are $3350 below the average.

If no pay rises take place in 2010, VU will sink to the lowest on the university ladder.

A history of attacks under Harman has steeled staff into fighting for quality education and defending their own conditions. They only have to remember the past major attack in November 2008 when Harman informed staff through the national media that 270 jobs would be slashed.

VU staff have learnt from experience.

The NTEU has always said it is willing to bargain in good faith. Unfortunately, Harman and her leadership team have not, so future industrial action can’t be ruled out.