Australian academics are preparing to take further industrial action in their campaign for a 19 per cent pay rise when universities reopen for classes later this month.
In the last months of 1999 many universities were disrupted by strikes and bans on handling administrative tasks, including the release of examination results.
Under the conservative government's industrial laws, unions must negotiate separate agreements covering salaries and conditions with each institution. But the National Tertiary Education Union has adopted a "pattern bargaining" approach, where it seeks the best deal possible at one university and then uses it as a model to persuade others to follow suit.
By December, the union had reached agreement with six universities and officials. It is now confident of settlements at a majority of the remaining 32 during the first half of this year.
Although the NTEU campaigned nationally for a 19 per cent salary increase, payable over three years, it has accepted lower rises ranging from 12.5 to 15 per cent. Apart from the pay rise, the union's claim includes no net job losses and the preservation of existing working conditions.
In December, the NTEU negotiated an agreement at the University of New South Wales, where the vice-chancellor and then president of the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee, John Niland, had been one of the strongest opponents of the union's campaign.
Professor Niland had earlier used the federal Workplace Relations Act to hold ballots of academic and general staff proposing non-union agreements. But both ballot propositions were overwhelmingly rejected.
Professor Niland and union officials then reached agreement on job security provisions and the vice-chancellor indicated the university would consider offering a 12.5 per cent pay rise. As a result, the NTEU lifted all bans and cancelled any further industrial action.
For some universities, a 12.5 to 15 per cent increase in salary payments cannot be awarded without further cuts in staffing. Since enterprise bargaining was introduced three years ago, at least 3,000 higher education jobs have been lost.
At the University of Canberra, vice-chancellor Don Aitkin told his staff he had "the greatest trepidation" in assuming salary increases could be provided without more job losses.
Apart from the inevitability of further losses, the difference in outcomes and settlement dates at the various universities means the already substantial gap in salaries that exists between academics on the same level in different institutions can only increase.