UWA on the brink of industrial action

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) at a Perth university has been forced to the brink of industrial action.

University of Western Australia (UWA) management has spent over a year dragging its feet in enterprise bargaining negotiations, but has refused to budge on key issues of pay, workload limits and parking fees.

Student enrolments at UWA rocketed between 2007 and last year, from 17,951 to an incredible 24,829. Yet in that time only 13 new places have been allocated for academic teaching-staff. This is an increase of 36% on student-staff ratios, leaving teachers, support staff, and professors overworked, often without paid overtime.

Several decades ago, it was unheard of to have more than 12 or 14 people in a tutorial. Now, tutorial sizes at UWA routinely reach 24 people.

“Pressure on you, pressure on us,” UWA NTEU President Jamie O’Shea told students. “It’s not a business. It’s not about making money. I didn’t want to be a part of a sausage factory that produced degrees. You get the same HECS debt whether that person has four students or 40 students. The difference for you is quality.”

The university says the 3% average pay rise over four years it offered to UWA staff was similar to other universities. Melbourne University staff recently accepted a 3% pay rise.

O’Shea said: “If you take the Melbourne University offer, can we also have the clause they have in their agreement that puts caps on workloads? And it is about the money too. Unashamedly, I go to bat because I think our staff are as good as those at Edith Cowan or Curtin [other West Australian universities that have already agreed to a 4% per year pay increase over four years].”

The 3% pay rise offered to staff contrasts sharply with the pay rise at the top. The university put a freeze on hiring staff during the global financial crisis and subsequent cuts to government funding.

Yet the most highly paid executive went up a tax bracket from $580,000-$589,999 in 2011 to $680,000-$689,999 last year.

O’Shea said: “When the uni has an income of close to a billion dollars, it’s not unknown for them to be paid that money. What is galling is how much it goes up each year and ours doesn’t.”

Parking has long been an issue for staff and students. Current fees reach up to $500 a year. But the frustration will rise as parking goes up to $9 a day, which could mean more than $2000 a year as of 2015. The argument in support of the price rise is that it will encourage the use of public transport.

But, as O’Shea said: “Not everyone gets to use public transport in Perth. The most disaffected will be the lower paid staff. They’re often women, they’ve got family commitments, or they’re not on the higher salaries and may live in the outer suburbs where public transport is more difficult to access and use.

“For the lowest paid workers it will be the second year of the agreement before they actually make any money. It will all go on parking and in real terms they will be $1500 behind at the end of the agreement.”

If the fee increase goes ahead, the university will generate in excess of $5 million a year from revenues, so they clearly have a vested interest in people continuing to drive. University management is refusing to even negotiate with the union on the loss of this working condition, saying parking is not an industrial issue.

The campaign for a fair deal began as a silent protest at the Perth Writers Festival on February 21. If management still refuses to meet the union’s demands, future industrial action may include refusal to take part in professional development reviews, insisting overtime is paid in cash, work bans, and bans on giving information or assisting with enrolments.

Industrial action could culminate in an indefinite strike. The results of a recent union ballot showed 75% of union members who voted supported strike action. The NTEU hopes that students will understand and support the necessary action being taken.

From GLW issue 1000