Local pay deals out of kilter

March 27, 1998

After 18 months of strikes, bans and protest marches, Australia's universities have at last concluded their first round of grand-scale pay bargaining.

Academics and general staff have gained an average 12 per cent pay rise - mostly spread over two years. Although staff have generally maintained conditions, the cost in terms of jobs and student:staff ratios has been high.

Up to 8,000 posts could have disappeared if casual and contract jobs were included. Many universities have been forced to restructure faculties and close departments.

Under a new industrial system of negotiating pay and conditions, staff at each university must bargain separately with management over salaries and work conditions.

Although some universities tried to ignore unions and negotiate directly with staff, this was overwhelmingly rejected by both academics and general staff.

The main union, the National Tertiary Education Union, maintained tight control over all negotiations and approved agreements where only officials believed its goals had been achieved.

The union had called for a 15 per cent pay increase but, when the conservative government refused to provide extra money to meet a wage rise, it accepted less.

Some universities reached agreement with the union long before others, leading to big pay differences. Professors at some universities are earning Aus$6,000 (Pounds 2,400) a year more than others.

Monash University, for example, concluded talks only last week. Staff will still be waiting for their final pay rise while colleagues at Canberra University, which was the first to achieve a settlement in November 1996, will have been paid the full increase and may even have had further rises.

There were optimistic projections when bargaining began in the second half of 1996 that negotiations would have been concluded on all campuses by mid-1997. It was another ten months before that happened.

Union leaders have yet to decide on the size of the next claim in September, whether to adopt the same centralised control over campus negotiations, or what non-pay-related issues they will pursue. It is certain, however, that casual and contract employment, as well as job maintenance, will form key elements of the next campaign.

NTEU general secretary Grahame McCulloch described the latest round as "a difficult and very time-consuming process for our members and activists and doubly difficult because of funding cuts and the failure of the federal government to provide salary supplementation".

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