UNSW staff strike for better deal

Issue 

Frustrated by a lack of progress in enterprise bargaining after eleven months of negotiation, members of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) at the University of New South Wales launched the first of a series of fortnightly 24-hour strikes on March 18.

Pickets were established at all gates on the Kensington campus at 7am, which culminated in a lunchtime rally. NTEU members at the Australian Defence Force Academy also took part in the action.

The strike failed to completely close down the campus, but its impact was widely felt. Dozens of classes were cancelled and there was a noticeable drop in student and staff presence.

NTEU members in the Faculty of Law met before the strike and decided to ensure maximum participation in the action. This meant the number of strikers was likely higher than the previous September 2009 strike.

NTEU UNSW branch president Susan Price told Green Left Weekly that NTEU members worked to gain support from students for their action.

"Our members leafleted students every morning at bus stops and on the gates, in order to explain why we were taking action and that staff did not decide to take this action lightly.

Price said university management repeatedly refused to agree to an acceptable schedule of meetings that could enable progress on key issues for staff, such as academic workload, pay and conditions for casual staff and limiting the reliance on casual and fixed-term staff.

NTEU members "resolved to step up pressure on university management to come to the table", Price said.

Price addressed a Students Representative Council meeting on March 11. It passed a motion was passed supporting the key issues of the staff campaign and the right of staff to strike.

The Islamic Students Society, which has organised protests against the university administration's failure to provide adequate prayer facilities, sent a message of solidarity to the strikers. ISS said: "We will fight for our rights against a university that has placed profits above the rights of its staff and student community."

NTEU members from other universities sent messages of support and a delegation from the University of Sydney attended the rally. The University of Sydney administration settled an agreement with the NTEU in late 2009 that guaranteed an 18.3% pay rise over three years.

It also agreed to improvements in conditions that the UNSW administration is refusing to agree to.

The UNSW strike occurred in the face of management intransigence, provocation and intimidation.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on March 16 that UNSW human resources manager David Ward sent an email to the NTEU that "effectively goaded staff about taking action".

Deputy vice-chancellor Richard Henry, in an attempt to play students against staff, sent an email to students informing them that the strike pay deducted from NTEU members would be donated to student services.

Price said this strategy drew angry emails from a number of students in response.

Price said some heads of school were also reportedly demanding staff give notice of their intention to strike, contrary to legal requirements.

"Although we encouraged our members to seek the support of their students for the action, we also had to keep reminding them of their legal right to strike and that they were under no obligation to tell management whether or not they were intending to take action."

Vice-Chancellor Fred Hilmer, former CEO of Fairfax Limited and reputed to be an anti-union ideologue, had his contract renewed by the university for a further five years at the start of 2010.

Hilmer has repeatedly refused to publicly disclose his full salary package, including benefits, which is rumoured to be more than $1 million.

Staff at UNSW have been given administrative pay adjustments of 3% per annum and been told Hilmer is not interested in negotiating new agreements for them.

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