National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) members at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) began industrial action on June 30 to pressure management to reach agreement with the union on a range of claims. They want reinstatement of job security protections for contract research staff; improved conditions for casual and fixed-term staff; Indigenous employment targets and an increase in paid parental leave from 26 to 36 weeks.
The university management is engaged in a campaign of intimidation against NTEU members. It has threatened to stand down without pay any workers who take part in the action.
Several faculty deans have sent letters to workers saying if they don’t submit results without another reason, they will be assumed to be taking part in the ban and their details will be passed on to human resources.
Despite the threats, NTEU members’ resolve to proceed with the ban has been overwhelming.
An exemptions committee has been established at the Kensington and the Australian Defence Force Academy campuses. It will assess student applications to have results released on the grounds of academic hardship. Graduating students have been assured they will be automatically granted exemptions on application.
The union has set up a local fund to supplement national financial support for members who may be stood down. Donations have been flowing in from supportive staff — one member offered to donate an entire week’s salary.
UNSW is the only member of the Group of Eight (Go8) Australian universities refusing to reinstate job security for staff through the regulation of fixed-term contracts now protected by a modern award safety net.
Regulation of these contracts is particularly important in the higher education sector; a disproportionately large number of staff work under such contracts compared with the broader labour force. At UNSW, fixed-term contracts have risen by 36% in the past four years.
UNSW management has dragged out negotiations for the last 16 months. It has only recently shown signs of willingness to seriously negotiate with the union. This turnaround can be attributed to the NTEU’s sustained campaign of industrial action, which started in September 2009 with a 24-hour strike. The strike was followed by two more days of strike action in March 2010.
The delays in bargaining, and their impact on the university’s ability to attract and keep staff, also prompted 23 UNSW professorial staff to write to the vice chancellor recently, appealing to him to reach an agreement with the NTEU.
If members are stood down without pay, this will have a serious impact on the work the UNSW staff must do to prepare for semester two. The union hopes management will recognise the implications of such action and devote the time needed to conclude negotiations for new enterprise agreements for academic and general staff.
[Susan Price is the NTEU UNSW branch president and a member of the NTEU state executive.]