UNSW staff vote for more industrial action

Staff rally at UNSW on July 20. Staff are demanding conditions similar to those at almost all other Australian universities. Pho

National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) members at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) have vowed more industrial action to fight the ongoing refusal of vice-chancellor Fred Hilmer to negotiate on improvements to job security, pay and other conditions for UNSW staff.

In particular, the union is concerned about the unregulated use of fixed-term contracts and casual employment at the university.

An NTEU meeting on August 4 voted for partial work bans in preparation for and participation in UNSW promotional events from August 30 to September 4.

Each year hundreds of UNSW staff members volunteer their time at Open Day, to be held on September 4 this year, to promote the university to new students. This year staff members will hold protests and campaign on campus instead.

The union also resolved to challenge the vice-chancellor to a public debate on Open Day to support its bargaining claims.

Support for staff is especially strong among students, who view the undermining of workplace conditions as lowering the quality of their education.

On August 5, the UNSW Student Representative Council (SRC) unanimously passed a motion that “affirmed its support for staff in their fight for a fair deal that protects the rights of staff and ensures quality education”.

The SRC resolved to “support the staff action on Open Day and work with the NTEU to maximise its impact, noting that it will not affect teaching and learning”.

SRC president Osman Faruqi told Green Left Weekly: “Students are disappointed that the university is once again refusing to negotiate on fixed-term contracts, particularly when it looked like both sides were moving towards a compromise.”

Under the previous Howard government’s Higher Education Workplace Relations Requirements (HEWRRs), introduced in 2005, university funding was made contingent on the full deregulation of fixed-term and casual employment.

From 2005 to 2009, fixed-term employment at UNSW rose by 36% and casual employment by 18%. In contrast, continuing employment increased by only 4%. This means a whopping 90% of job growth at UNSW has been in insecure employment.

This explosion in fixed term employment at UNSW has disproportionately affected women. The employment of men on fixed term contracts rose 28% from 2005-2009, but deregulation has made the employment of women on fixed term contracts rise by 44% over the same period.

Despite the abolition of HEWRRs and the introduction of a new federal award for higher education staff, which enshrines regulations on fixed term employment, UNSW management wants to keep these Howard-era provisions. Management wants the “flexibility” to use fixed-term contracts due to changes in the demand for teachers in fee-paying courses.

But the union has pointed out that the biggest shift to fixed-term employment has been among general staff, jumping from 29% in 2005 to 36% in 2009 — a bigger rise than for academic staff.

The NTEU says staff are simply demanding conditions similar to those at almost all other Australian universities. In the current round of bargaining, the NTEU has negotiated agreements at 23 universities. All of these agreements restored the regulations on fixed term agreements.

The union is seeking agreement on rates of pay, a maximum workload, improvements to paid parental leave and Indigenous employment targets.