Unions flex muscles over pay rise retreat

October 4, 1996

Australia's main academic union plans to adopt a more aggressive industrial stance towards wage rises and job security.

The decision comes as vice chancellors face growing pressure from the conservative coalition government to support its plans for a big rise in tuition fees and the introduction of radical changes to the industrial relations system.

Higher education unions have failed to win any concessions from the new conservative government in preventing budget cuts or gaining additional money for a salary increase.

The National Tertiary Education Union is set to approve a political and industrial action plan. Campaign proposals include putting pressure on members of parliament and parliamentary candidates in selected regions and marginal seats. This could involve public protests, mailings, door-knocking and opinion poll techniques, and the selective use of radio and newspaper advertisements.

The campaign is also expected to lead to public rallies early next year as academics push for improved operating grants and wage supplements in the next federal budget.

It is already clear the unions have no chance of winning the 15 per cent pay rise they have been seeking for nearly a year and even a 5 per cent increase is likely to be paid for by thousands of job losses.

Writing in the latest issue of the union's journal, Advocate, the general and assistant secretaries, Grahame McCulloch and Kerry Lewis, warn: "The vice chancellors are at best patchy allies. They are not a disciplined and coherent group and each vice chancellor will be increasingly motivated in the future by individual and institutional self-interest in a more competitive market-driven system. Moreover, we can expect direct conflict between vice chancellors and many union branches as managements pursue productivity concessions, including job losses, in exchange for pay rises."

Education minister Amanda Vanstone has warned vice chancellors that operating grants to universities will be cut even further than those imposed in the August budget if the senate blocks the proposed fee increases.

Although it has a massive majority in the House of Representatives, the government is outnumbered in the Senate. Labor and Democrat senators have said they will oppose the planned changes to the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, which sharply increases the fees that university students will have to pay next year, and have put forward numerous amendments to the government's industrial relations legislation.

Senator Vanstone said if fee rises were not passed, the government would canvass other options which did not require Senate approval, including further reductions to operating grants. Alarmed vice chancellors warned that any more cuts would lead to a "significant, unrecoverable decline in standards" .

Two senior vice chancellors have already broken ranks with their colleagues and called on the Labor and Democrat parties to pass the changes to HECS. The heads of Melbourne and Sydney universities urged the senators to accept the revenue-generating measures "with whatever refinements and improvements they can negotiate".

Despite this surprising political intervention by two of its key figures, the Australian Vice Chancellors' Committee is agonising over the position it should adopt. If it comes out in support of the fee rises and the government's plans to severely limit the role of unions in industrial negotiations, it will alienate students and staff. But if tuition fees are not increased a major source of new funding will not be available and vice chancellors say that therefore jobs and courses will have to go.

Meanwhile the head of the vice chancellors industrial body, the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association, called on the government for support in opposing a staff claim for a 15 per cent pay rise.

Universities are expected to demand changes in working conditions in return for a pay rise, including a reduction in the number of tenured positions and the introduction of weekend and summer classes.

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