Non-union ballot defeated at Melbourne University

June 16, 2020
Annette Herrera. Photo: NTEU Melbourne University Branch

University of Melbourne staff voted overwhelmingly on June 10 to reject a proposed change to their enterprise agreement.

The change would have attacked staff wages and conditions, including clawing back a 2.2% pay rise and introducing new voluntary redundancy provisions with reduced entitlements. It was promoted by management as being necessary to deal with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the university’s budget.

A resounding 64% (5190) of the university’s staff voted to reject the proposal, with a majority (51%) turning out to vote.

The University of Melbourne is one of Australia’s wealthiest research-intensive universities, with enough cash reserves to cover fee losses this year and potential losses in coming years, according to modelling by Ian Marshman and Frank Larkins from the Centre for the Study of Higher Education.

Melbourne University NTEU activist Annette Herrera told Green Left’s Jonathan Strauss how, with only two and a half weeks to campaign, the union was able to defeat the ballot.

“We had a campaign plan that focussed on activating our delegates’ network and our casuals’ network to have faculty-wide workplace meetings, as well as large work unit meetings all on Zoom, within the space of about a week and a half.

“We had over 20 workplace meetings in total, engaging over 1800 staff,” Herrera said, adding that “‘random’ Zoom meetings were open to members and non members”.

Workplace meetings, communication through email and phone banking were a big part of the campaign, Herrera explained. Also critical was the involvement of significant layers of delegates and rank-and-file activists, including casual staff. This has strengthened the union and built on two years of solid organising work among casual members.

As a result, union membership has been growing: “It was close to 1900 at start of 2020 and there are [now] close to 2400 members.”

“This type of grassroots approach was very much member-led. At the workplace meetings it was very much branch committee members and delegates leading.

“The workplace meetings were framed as an information session to make people angry, but ended with a call to action: get involved right now; talk to 10 members and become a delegate in your area.

The response was “overwhelming”, Herrera said. “Close to 200 volunteers put their hands up.”

Defeating the non-union ballot meant challenging the university management’s line that cuts to pay and conditions were needed to save the university. It also meant involving the student body in the campaign – something that will be critical in the weeks and months ahead, she added. “People are realising that in a strong union, every single member has to be involved.”

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