Women workers win landmark deal at Sydney Uni


Kathleen Scott, Sydney

After almost 18 months of bargaining and three strikes, University of Sydney staff have secured a landmark agreement that includes one of the best paid maternity packages in the country.

Enterprise bargaining at Sydney University was abruptly brought to a standstill in September with the announcement of the Higher Education Workplace Relations Requirements (HEWRR), the federal Coalition government's attempt, within the Nelson Review package, to tie university funding to the introduction of individual Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs).

Members of the National Tertiary Education Union immediately responded with a strike on October 7. The NTEU campaign stepped up a gear with a successful national strike alongside other campus unions on October 16.

The impasse at Sydney University continued, however, with the administration toeing the government line by refusing to sign the new enterprise agreement.

A further strike — this time called by the NTEU only — was held on December 3, forcing both university management, as well as the federal government, to recognise that there would be no trade-off on union agreements.

The passing of the Nelson Review reforms by the federal parliament in the days which followed represented the biggest attack on funded university education to date. Senate-imposed amendments to the package will save university staff from the imminent threat of AWAs and the HEWRR were thrown out.

This propelled management and the unions back to the negotiating table.

Despite a heads of agreement signing in December, bargaining at Sydney University has not been without some last-minute drama to nut out the final details of the agreement. Attempts were made by management to water down some of the main benefits, including the maternity package.

The main agreement was finally reached on February 3, with the overall package including a 20% pay rise, $1000 bonus on certification, a cap on casualisation (a widespread problem in the tertiary education sector) and strategies to improve Indigenous employment on campus.

The main gain for women workers was a three-fold increase in paid maternity leave, to 36 weeks. This is near matching the deal agreed at the Australian Catholic University in 2001.

NTEU strategy was to achieve at least 14 weeks' fully paid maternity leave (an International Labour Organisation standard) with a target upwards to 38 weeks' pay. To date, other university maternity deals have seen 14 weeks' full pay agreed at the University of New South Wales and 26.5 weeks at the Australian National University. Certification at Sydney University is expected in the coming weeks.

[Kathleen Scott is an NTEU member employed at the University of Sydney.]

From Green Left Weekly, February 18, 2004.
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