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“It has felt deliberately slow”: UniMelb staff strike for secure work, fair pay as bargaining stalls

Hundreds of staff from the University of Melbourne walked off the job for a half-day strike last Wednesday, calling for better pay and job security amid protracted negotiations over a new employment contract.


Hundreds of staff from the University of Melbourne walked off the job for a half-day strike last Wednesday, calling for better pay and job security amid protracted negotiations over a new employment contract.

In the tertiary sector’s largest industrial campaign since 2019, staff and students congregated at the University's Parkville campus, before marching towards Trades Hall and the Eight-Hour Day Monument, where they were joined by fellow staff from Deakin, Monash, La Trobe and Federation universities.

They vocalised frustrations over wage theft, unsustainable workloads, and forced redundancies.

"People work on weekends and after-hours, that's the only way things get done," said Emma Randles, a graduate project officer in Chancellery’s Research and Enterprise division.

"The main claim I'm fighting for is the end of endless restructures... People getting moved out of work, but no one else is taking over because the University hasn't organised someone else," said Grady Fitzpatrick, head tutor in the Faculty of Engineering and IT.

"That work isn't being done by anyone formally, so [it] kind of becomes a wage theft issue as well."

Negotiations over a new Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) have been underway since early 2022, after the last agreement expired in November 2021.

According to the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), the University has ignored a list of key claims for fairer work standards in the upcoming contract.

These include improved parental leave, a pay raise in line with inflation, flexible working arrangements, restrictions on rolling restructures, more manageable workloads, and for at least 80 per cent of the workforce to be employed in ongoing positions.

Two of these claims — an 80 per cent secure work target and reduced workloads — were highlighted by the NTEU as necessary to address systemic wage theft across the tertiary sector.

"So far the bargaining process has been very slow. And it has felt deliberately slow," said David Gonzalez, University of Melbourne NTEU Branch Secretary.

"We've done everything we can to advance the process, and bring our members' concerns to management... and [it's] been sometimes weeks, months later that we even hear anything back."

In a statement to Farrago, the University maintained it was engaging productively with the union.

"Our objective is to work collaboratively and constructively with the unions to reach a new enterprise agreement that is fair to all, recognises the value and contribution that all staff members make ... [and] positions the University for long-term sustainability and success," its spokesperson said.

But after sector-wide wage theft scandals across Australia — with the University of Melbourne at the centre — some staff are urging for government intervention to reform the tertiary workforce model.

"Change has to come much higher up for it to have a proper impact... systems have to change so that universities are forced to behave in a different way," said Alice*, a library staff member.

"You're pushing shit uphill if you're trying to get each enterprise agreement changed to get better, specific conditions," she continued.

As for the current EBA, staff say further industrial action is likely, to ensure their demands are met.

"Whether that's an ongoing strike, a 24-hour strike, a weekly strike, or an indefinite strike," said Emily Kaji, a casual assistant at the University's Baillieu Library.

"Whatever it takes, to make sure management comes to the table with a reasonable agreement."


*Name changed upon request to ensure anonymity

Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly paraphrased a statement from the University of Melbourne's spokesperson. It has since been edited to include the relevant direct quote.


Farrago's magazine cover - Edition Two 2023


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