Australian union leaders ‘paid too much’, say rival candidates

Clash over officials’ salaries occurs against a backdrop of resentment over union leadership’s pandemic tactics

July 20, 2022
Australian cash money notes coins

While Australia’s vice-chancellors are accustomed to being chastised for earning too much, similar criticism is now being levelled against academic union officials embroiled in a highly charged election contest.

Three National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) members have vowed to slash the union leadership’s salaries if their candidacy in next month’s election proves successful.

The three candidates, who have joined forces in a ticket called “A New NTEU”, say they will pursue “comprehensive reform” of elected officials’ pay at the union’s next national council. In the meantime, they have promised to relinquish annual earnings of about A$100,000 (£57,000) each if elected.  

“The current salaries…are excessive and distance the leadership of the union from the conditions that ordinary workers face on a daily basis,” the candidates claim. “We cannot justify salaries of over A$200,000 when an average worker often struggles to earn even A$50,000 per year and is unsure of…ongoing employment.”

Their pledge would halve the salaries of the national president and general secretary from A$211,429 to A$105,715 a year. The national assistant secretary’s earnings would plunge to the same level from A$187,937, generating almost A$300,000 a year to bankroll organising efforts and industrial action.

Anastasia Kanjere, a casually employed social science academic running for the general secretary’s position, said current salaries created a “rift” between the leadership and “ordinary workers”.

She said lower pay would help bring union leaders back to earth in terms of “really simple things” like the pubs they frequented, the cars they drove and the impact of escalating food prices. “When you’re on a salary like A$211,000 a year, lettuce prices skyrocketing is not really a problem for you.”

Dr Kanjere said her running mate for national president, casual biology academic Fahad Ali, had earned less than the minimum wage last year. “This is somebody who lectures and develops courses in molecular genetics,” she said. “If we are elected, this will be a pay rise for all three of us [who] are, to some extent, precarious workers.”

Damien Cahill, candidate for general secretary in the opposing Strong United NTEU team, said union office bearers’ salaries should be in line with the membership of the sectors in which they worked.

“The current pay scales are pegged to the academic rates. I think that’s appropriate, but the pay rates of officers should be and are subject to regular review,” said Dr Cahill, who is incumbent secretary of the union’s New South Wales division.

Pay rates for the three top jobs are currently linked to academic pay scales for professors, who generally attract base salaries over A$190,000.

The election is taking place amid simmering resentment among some NTEU members over the union leadership’s attempts to strike a deal with universities in 2020, in an ultimately fruitless attempt to forestall pandemic-induced job losses.

Dr Kanjere said that while she was not opposed to unions making concessions to save jobs, she objected to the “anti-democratic manner” in which it had been pursued. “The first thing that the national leadership of the NTEU did was go into closed door meetings with bosses. I don’t think that’s how you respond to a crisis.”

Dr Cahill said the election would hinge on members’ judgements about which candidates had the experience and commitment to address job security, “chronic overwork” and “rampant workplace restructuring”, to campaign effectively for university funding and governance reform.

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