More than 450 University of Sydney staff members belonging to the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) attended a mass meeting on September 21 that voted to accept an agreement offer from management, rather than to continue strike action.
The negotiations have taken place in the context of university Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence – renowned for his high pay, which is now at $1.4 million – moving forward with his “Strategic Plan” amalgamation program. The first casualty of this plan was Sydney College of the Arts, which had its funding gutted.
Management has since attempted to sack science administration staff, casual staff at the administration building and staff in the IT department.
While crying poor, the university has recently spent $2.3 billion on three buildings, given upper management a pay rise and has a budget surplus of at least $250 million and $1.8 billion in endowments.
The NTEU had already taken two separate strike actions around four key demands during the negotiations in July and September
The four main issues raised by the union were: no forced redundancies, with guaranteed redeployment to other departments; a better deal for casuals including sick leave and equal superannuation; opposition to the creation of teaching-only full-time positions; and an effective pay rise.
Members had also voted for a two-day strike, which was set to take place on October 4-5, before the latest offer was presented to the mass meeting.
Following the second strike action on September 13, management made the union a new offer, which received the support of NTEU Sydney University Branch president Kurt Iveson and vice-presidents Damien Cahill and Mark Johnston.
However, the NTEU Branch Committee was divided at an emergency meeting convened to discuss the offer, with six members supporting it and eight opposed.
This division was expressed at the mass members meeting on September 21.
Iveson argued in favour of accepting the agreement at the meeting, saying that “since bargaining began in March we have achieved so much”.
Among the benefits of the new deal, Iveson said, were that casuals would receive new payments at the beginning of their contracts (4 hours on commencement and every year), and if sick, would get paid for preparation time.
About one third of staff are casual and 50% of teaching is conducted by casuals.
Iveson said the new offer also secures nine months of redeployment throughout the university, as part of ameliorating the proposed sackings envisioned in the management’s Strategic Plan, and will see a reduction in teaching-only positions.
Iveson noted, however, that the pay offer remained unchanged.
Cahill and Johnston argued that if the offer was rejected, management would withdraw its current proposal and put forward an inferior one in its place.
Branch Committee member David Brophy put the motion to reject management’s agreement.
A statement put out by those opposed to the offer said: “This offer doesn’t meet any of the goals we set.”
On forced redundancies, the statement said: “Management can and should redeploy staff when their positions are made redundant. The December 2019 sunset clause for 9-month redeployment in the offer is a ticking time-bomb. How will we feel in January 2020 if we don’t defend our jobs when we can?”
The statement noted that the agreement did not offer casuals sick-leave or equality in superannuation pay (casual staff receive 12.5% and full time staff were offered 17% in management’s agreement).
It also said that the offer did not safeguard the teaching-research nexus, adding: “The university is extremely wealthy and its expenditure on staff as a proportion of income is low. Its executives enjoy salaries that are fast becoming an International scandal, and it grants its [vice-chancellor] a bonus in excess of a professional salary.
“In this context, do we really deserve a real-terms pay cut?”
After some debate, 301 union members voted to accept management’s offer, while 139 voted to reject it. No further strike action will take place.
Speaking to Green Left Weekly , NTEU Sydney University Branch Committee member Nick Riemer said: "This was a textbook illustration of the paradoxes of bureaucratic unionism - mobilise maximum organising energy into suppressing rather than supporting members' enthusiasm for exercising their power.
"And it succeeded brilliantly in turning last week's unanimous vote for strike action into yesterday's majority vote for settling, on practically an identical deal.
"But everyone who works at Sydney University should still join the NTEU and help us make it and our workplace better."
[Rachel Evans is Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association’s Education Officer and Socialist Alliance member.]