‘Game-playing’ claims as Australian employment negotiations drag

Union endorsement proves crucial, as direct pitches to staff falter

March 3, 2023
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Staff at Australia’s oldest university have called a strike after its administrators bypassed the union to offer what it says is the most generous pay offer in the country.

The University of Sydney said its pay increase proposal – a 15.4 per cent cumulative boost over three years, together with a A$2,000 (£1,117) “sign-on payment” worth about another 2 per cent – would ensure its staff remained the “best-paid” in the sector.

The university has also promised to reduce its casual academic workforce by 20 per cent through the creation of 300 new permanent positions, with casuals given first dibs on many of them, and by creating fixed-term “PhD fellowships” for doctoral students who would otherwise work as casuals. The offer includes other benefits including a remote work clause and 30 days’ paid gender affirmation leave.

The offer surfaced after a proposal at Western Sydney University (WSU) was hailed a “historic win” by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), and approved by over 95 per cent of voting staff. WSU’s deal included a 14.2 per cent cumulative salary boost, 150 new permanent jobs, a 25 per cent reduction in casual academic labour, work from home rights and 20 days’ gender affirmation leave.

But at Sydney, NTEU representatives rejected the university’s proposal ahead of a scheduled bargaining meeting in late February, and instead called a strike for 9 March.

Sydney staff resent management plans to boost the number of teaching-only academics – which they say will produce “impossibly high teaching workloads” – and require extra teaching or research from employees who spend less than 20 per cent of their work time in service activities. Critics say many engagement and service tasks that academics perform routinely are simply not recognised by their employers.

“We wouldn’t be striking unless we had to,” staff told students. “We’ve been negotiating with the university’s management for over 20 months for the new contract that governs our conditions and pay. The university has serious problems which we’re trying to fix for everyone’s benefit.”

Sydney provost Annamarie Jagose expressed similar frustration in a message to staff. “We have been in an unnecessarily protracted bargaining round – more than half a year longer than any I have seen at this university over the last decade. While the package we have offered…has not been fully agreed with the unions, we have made a sector-leading offer that many colleagues will be impatient to accept.”

In an unusually acrimonious round of bargaining, other universities have failed to win staff support for enterprise agreements that lacked union endorsement. Only 28 per cent of voting staff agreed to Curtin University’s proposal in February, while a vote at the University of Newcastle in December attracted just 19 per cent approval.

Workplace agreements proposed without union backing by Griffith University were supported by 67 per cent of professional staff but just 38 per cent of academics. At institutions with union-endorsed proposals, such as Queensland University of Technology and the Australian Catholic University, staff support has exceeded 95 per cent.

Unionists say administrators are bypassing the employee representatives to “ram through sub-standard agreements” before new industrial relations legislation weakens the universities’ bargaining position.

They cite a “strategy roadmap” published by the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association, which encourages institutions to finalise enterprise agreements before 6 June to avoid being “roped into a multi-employer agreement”.

A counter-claim is that unions are unnecessarily prolonging negotiations to create an inflated impression of industrial conflict, in a cynical ploy to boost their memberships, or to capitalise on public antipathy towards university administrators over the widespread underpayment of casual staff.

Sources said both administrators and employee representatives may be dragging out discussions, at different times and for different reasons. “There’s game-playing on both sides,” one said.

Griffith and Newcastle have resumed negotiations with their union branches, and Curtin says it will do likewise. Griffith said it had made “significant progress” on a revised enterprise agreement for academics, and has promised all staff a 5 per cent pay rise this month.


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