Staff Industrial Action Looms As NTEU Negotiations Stall

17 April 2018

Staff at the University of Melbourne have begun the process of commencing industrial action, due to slow-moving negotiations regarding conditions of work with the University. Led by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), this development is supported by a larger trend of dissatisfied higher education staff, as shown by a recent survey released by the NTEU.

On 21 March, staff members at an NTEU meeting unanimously voted to conduct a Protected Action Ballot (PAB): a survey which assesses the interest of professional and academic staff in conducting industrial action, potentially leading to this outcome.

This was a result of a mid-February meeting between the NTEU and the University, which concerned negotiations for a revised enterprise agreement for staff. An enterprise agreement is a formal agreement between University employees and management regarding the terms and conditions of their work.

Since the PAB has been proposed, much more progress has been made at the bargaining table with the University, including productive negotiations around parental leave, domestic violence leave and gaining more secure employment for research staff.

However, progress for the agreement is no closer to nearing the end, with negotiations now hitting its thirteenth month. Only 19 out of 103 clauses have been reached, none of which include the NTEU’s key clauses of increasing academic and intellectual freedom and having a set of employment targets for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff.

The University intends on having two separate enterprise agreements, one for professional staff and one for academic. In an unlisted YouTube video, Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis states that a “one-size-fits-all approach” is no longer “sensible today”, and that “academic staff need their own enterprise agreement, reflecting their particular strengths and needs and interests”.

This action is unprecedented, and may result in varying pays for different staff, possibly leading to pay cuts and different working conditions.

“[Staff] tell us [poor working conditions] impact negatively on their mental health and capacity to do their jobs well,” said Sara Brocklesby, Branch Secretary for NTEU at the University of Melbourne. “Many staff will put students’ needs before their own because they’re passionate about [their] education. It’s very frustrating when things like excessive workloads get in the way.”

The NTEU released their biennial State of The Uni Survey in late January this year, which profiles staff attitudes on employment conditions and workplace cultures within Australian universities.

According to survey results, which received 1,199 UniMelb staff respondents, roughly half of higher education staff felt that they could maintain a work-life balance and manage their workloads. 18.5 per cent of academic staff found senior management satisfactory, and 50.3 per cent felt as though they were valued at their respective institutions.

84 per cent supported the statement that “job security is important if intellectual freedom is to be protected”, and 36 per cent of staff felt secure about their job. 84.1 per cent agreed that the quality of education has been reduced due to the pressure on universities to make money.

Negotiations with the University will continue as the PAB is conducted.

Think of it as a strike against the University. The staff may not completely abandon their work and start picketing, but it could be a possibility while the enterprise agreement is negotiated. The exact details of the industrial action are yet to be outlined by NTEU.

Obviously, if professors and lecturers are missing in action it immediately affects students, though you can expect to receive notice if industrial action occurs.

Should industrial action be voted down by NTEU members, here’s a quick rundown of the possible consequences of implementing the University’s proposed enterprise agreements.

Firstly, there will potentially be unlimited sizes for tutorials and lectures, meaning “reduced access for students to teaching staff, and an overall poorer educational experience,” said Sarah Brocklesby of NTEU.

Secondly, with fixed academic hours, staff may be required to work unpaid during peak assessment periods, or be unavailable to assist students outside of working hours.

Finally, the cultural diversity of the University may possibly be compromised, as set targets for employing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff will potentially be removed.

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