Australia’s university-union deal: decision day looms

Support and opposition on both sides could make job-saving pact a close-run thing

May 22, 2020
Secret deal
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A deal to save Australian university jobs hangs in the balance, ahead of a crucial vote by rank and file members of the academic union.

The jobs protection framework, thrashed out by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association, could cut universities’ costs in return for work security guarantees.

Those that embrace the deal will be able to temporarily vary the enterprise agreements governing their institutions’ employment conditions, giving them limited discretion to implement actions such as cutting employees’ hours and pay rates. In return, university administrations will minimise stand-downs and redundancies, give displaced staff priority for new jobs and other such measures.

A 24 April meeting of the NTEU national council, the union’s governing body, supported the approach with 85 per cent in favour. A 20 May meeting reconfirmed that support with a slightly smaller majority, after 80 per cent endorsed the framework.

Modelling suggest that the deal could save the equivalent of 13,500 jobs if it was embraced by all universities. “Our national councillors have reached a difficult but necessary decision,” said NTEU president Alison Barnes. “We have been guided by the urgent need to save as many careers and livelihoods as we possibly can.”

The proposal has ignited hostility among NTEU members who oppose concessions and say the union leadership is trading hard-won conditions for insignificant and unenforceable undertakings from employers.

Opponents say the negotiations have undermined the union’s campaign to secure more government funding for universities. They also accuse the union executive of being too secretive and failing to consult adequately with members.

The dispute culminates next week when the framework is put to a national vote of members. The NTEU’s New South Wales division secretary, Michael Thomson, said he expected the proposal to “get up”.

“When we’ve had meetings of members, in the new Zoom world of meetings, most branches have endorsed it,” he said.

“Some branches haven’t. There’s vigorous discussion. That’s good. That’s what a union does. This is a difficult circumstance. It’s no surprise that people have questions about it.”

The union’s national day of action on 21 May, convened to agitate for emergency government funding, attracted criticism of the union leadership as well as Canberra. Cars in a Sydney protest convoy were festooned with slogans such as “no cuts to jobs or pay – vote no”.

Some of the fiercest opposition has come from staff at the universities of Sydney and Melbourne, whose vice-chancellors have ruled out pursuing the deal anyway. The Australian Catholic University, Edith Cowan, Flinders, Newcastle and the University of Technology Sydney have also declined.

Newcastle vice-chancellor Alex Zelinsky said the framework was more appropriate for universities confronting bigger financial losses because they had more international students. Flinders boss Colin Stirling said recent restructures had poised his institution to “adapt quickly to these challenging times. The required cost savings for 2020 have already been identified.”

Some eight universities have told the union that they intend to sign up to the framework if their staff approve it, including La Trobe, Monash and the University of Western Australia.

The University of Queensland, Charles Sturt University and Central Queensland University are among the undecided institutions. “We’ve written to all of them and said we need an answer as soon as possible,” Mr Thomson said.

“I think some universities won’t participate because they don’t like parts of the package – union control over decisions being made; access to rapid arbitration if there’s a disagreement. They have to show us their books. A lot of universities don’t like that.”

Macquarie, Murdoch and the universities of the Sunshine Coast and Southern Queensland may have inadvertently ruled themselves out of the framework by failing to significantly cut their executives’ salaries – a precondition of the agreement. This clause could also hinder agreements being struck at several universities where vice-chancellors have committed to cut their pay but other senior executives have not joined them.

The national vote is likely to take place on 27 or 28 May, after members have had time to consider documentation currently being finalised. The agreement can only proceed if a majority of voters across the country support it.

Provided that happens, universities where a majority of staff have approved the framework will be able to register variations to their enterprise agreements with the Fair Work Commission. The amended agreements will be circulated, taking effect if they are approved by votes of each institution’s staff about a week later.

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