Strikes and protests sweep Australian campuses

Anger at some universities, exultation at others, as enterprise negotiations drag on

September 2, 2023
Source: Twitter

Industrial unrest has erupted on campuses along Australia’s eastern seaboard, even as the combatants reach terms elsewhere.

Universities in Victoria and Queensland have experienced a week of strikes, rallies and protests, with more in train. Union leaders have accused university executives of unnecessarily delaying negotiations and “misusing workplace laws” to “ram through substandard wages and conditions”.

Administrators say they are offering the highest possible salary increases within the constraints of the sector’s “financial challenges”. They have tendered immediate pay rises “as a sign of good faith”, and some bargaining delays have occurred at the request of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU).

Meanwhile, union leaders have credited “the fight” after members accepted administrators’ offers in three cities in as many days. The proposals at Deakin and Macquarie universities and the Australian National University (ANU) include workload protections, limits on structural change, permanent appointments of some casual staff and compound pay rises of up to 20 per cent.

They also include improved employment conditions for indigenous staff, “gender affirmation” leave provisions and, in ANU’s case, sick leave for casual staff. “If you think the pay is good, you should see the conditions!” tweeted the NTEU’s Australian Capital Territory division.  

No such exaltation is evident at the University of Melbourne, where some union members stopped work for a week – claimed to be the longest ongoing industrial action in any Australian university’s history – or at Swinburne University of Technology, where union members said they were striking for the first time in a decade over the leadership’s “palpable” disregard for staff.

A Swinburne spokeswoman said the university had taken a “positive, collaborative and considered approach” to bargaining for a “simple, contemporary, fair and sustainable” agreement. “While we respect NTEU members’ right to strike, we are disappointed that the union has taken this decision given that negotiations continue to progress,” she said.

RMIT University union members said they too had stopped work over a lack of progress in enterprise bargaining. They said more than 700 days had elapsed since the expiry of the agreement covering higher education staff, while the vocational training version had lapsed more than 1,300 days ago.

Times Higher Education understands that formal negotiations over replacement agreements began several months ago. “We are committed to continuing to bargain in good faith to get the right outcomes for our community,” an RMIT spokeswoman said.

Union members have threatened further industrial action if RMIT “doesn’t get back to the table”. Across town at Monash University, the NTEU branch has called a half-day strike for 6 September.

In Queensland, James Cook University (JCU) union members rallied against a management proposal to cut some courses and axe 30 academic positions. The university said the proposals were designed to “build a sustainable future”.

Deputy vice-chancellor Marcus Lane said student “load” at the university’s main campuses had decreased by 17 per cent between 2018 and 2022, with the academic workforce growing by 6 per cent over the same period.

Union members at the University of Southern Queensland have accused management of “unnecessarily aggressive” tactics in “walking away” from an “extremely protracted bargaining process” and seeking conciliation from an independent umpire.

Provost Karen Nelson said the university was “focused on streamlining the current agreement” while maintaining and improving entitlements and conditions. “The university has proposed conciliation by an external third party in order to reach agreement with the NTEU.”

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles