Classes on Hold as Staff Protest Tomorrow

8 May 2018

This Wednesday, some classes will not run at the University as staff plans to abandon work to protest the University regarding its stance on workplace agreements. Instead, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) is encouraging staff to join the ‘Change the Rules’ rally from 9am–1pm.

The Change the Rules rally is intended as a broad protest against worker inequality and will be attended by multiple union groups. University of Melbourne staff who have been bargaining for better working conditions for 16 months will specifically protest the University’s efforts to remove protections of academic and intellectual freedom, and create two separate agreements for academic and professional staff, which may result in the groups being treated differently by the University.

Students are invited to join staff to march down Swanston Street in a contingent run by the NTEU, who have now been bargaining with the University for 16 months for better working conditions. The NTEU predicts hundreds of staff will attend the march.

The University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) will also attend the rally in support of the NTEU. Both unions will meet at gate four at the end of Monash road at 9am, and move as a group to the Victorian Trades Hall Council Building to join the larger rally beginning at 10am. On the Facebook event, over 5000 people are have expressed their interest or intention to attend the protest.

Though the University has issued a notice requesting that staff inform the University in advance if they will participate, this is only legally required after staff return from the rally, meaning that the University will be unable to find replacement staff for tutorials and lectures. As a result, there is no public information on which classes will be unattended by staff during this time.

In a statement released by UMSU President Desiree Cai, the student union encourages students to also attend the rally and skip their classes in order to continue “maintaining a commitment staff-to-student ratios and … intellectual freedom for staff … so that class sizes will not increase and face-to-face time with tutors is not lost.”

President of the NTEU, Steve Adams, said that he hopes students will show their support and that it is important for students to understand why these protests are critical. “We’re not taking this lightly. We don’t want to disrupt the students’ lives and their learning, but sometimes this is a necessary thing. In the long run, what we are doing is in the greater interest of the students.”

“It’s 16 months in, and we’ve tried to get the University to remove some of the more objectionable things from their proposal, but they’re unwilling to do so. If [the University] is not going to listen to us at the table, it’s up to staff to use their voice and exercise their right to withdraw their labour.”

Conor Clements, UMSU education (public) officer, stated that the industrial action “has ultimately become necessary, due to the University’s unwillingness to compromise on basically any of the suggestions put forth by the NTEU … the University aren’t just pushing to keep things the same … they’re actively pushing forth with inclusions that will make working conditions worse for staff at Melbourne.”

Clements hopes that the protest will act as a “wake-up call” to the University. “This will be the first very public show of discontent from staff (and students) in this bargaining process. Up until now, it’s all been happening behind closed doors.”

“Students and staff should be supporting each other on principle … the issues being faced by the NTEU aren’t unique—casualisation and job insecurity have grown in prevalence all across Australia in all fields … these are issues that many of us will experience upon graduating.”

In response to a request to comment, a spokesperson for the University stated, “We continue to work with the union and other representatives to resolve bargaining and we are confident the process will deliver a good outcome for the workforce and the University.”

For the past year and a half, the NTEU have been engaged in an enterprise bargaining agreement with the University, which is a document that sets out the terms and working conditions for staff.

This document has recently expired, and for 16 months the NTEU has been bargaining the terms for the new agreement. This has recently stalled, sparking industrial action to protest the University’s proposals, which the NTEU believes is disadvantaging staff.

The key terms which the NTEU are fighting for are:

The same workplace agreement for academic and professional staff, as creating different working conditions for the two groups may result in varying pay and inconsistent treatment by the University.

In regards to why the University wants to pursue this, the reason is “very vague”, said Steve Adams. “[The University] has talked about academic staff and professional staff being on different trajectories. Our single focus here is on teaching and research.”

Better protection of academic and intellectual freedom for both groups of staff, which was previously covered in the outdated agreement.

The University has claimed freedom of speech and research is too important to be enshrined in an agreement, and that it is covered in University policy. However, “policy can be changed at any time,” said Adams. “There’s no legal protection for policy, whereas in an agreement, there is legal protection under academic freedom. Intellectual freedom for professional staff has been completely removed from the agreement.”

Decreasing casualisation of the University workforce, which currently sits at 68.4 per cent. Casual staff have insecure futures and receive less superannuation than permanent staff. The NTEU wants to increase job security and increase access to career pathways.

Superannuation of 17 per cent for all staff including casual and fixed term workers, who currently only receive nine per cent superannuation contributions. In a document released by the NTEU, the union stated, “It is not fair that casual and fixed term staff, who already endure chronic and insecure employment, are prevented from amassing adequate retirement savings.”

Other issues such as maintaining student-to-staff ratios, paid leave for staff who are victims of domestic abuse and including enforced targets for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff are also priorities for the NTEU.

Currently, only staff who are members of the NTEU are able to attend the protest without potential sanctions by the University. The NTEU welcomes staff to sign up to the Union, and will accept new members until the start of the protest.

Clements encourages students to clarify with their lecturers and tutors if classes are in session tomorrow, and if their non-attendance will be noted. “Your best option is to just ask them!”


Image credit: NTEU.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *