Unions oppose contract reform

October 24, 2003

A little after dawn last Thursday, the first strikers appeared outside the front entrance of RMIT University in Melbourne.

A swelling knot of students and lecturers hoisted placards and handed out leaflets as they joined an unprecedented one-day strike called by Australia's higher education and student unions.

Across the country, such actions were repeated on all the main university campuses, with pickets, marches and rallies.

On the RMIT picket line, Jago Dodson, a postdoctoral student, told The THES that he had joined the protest to defend collective bargaining against the Australian government's proposed reforms.

"I'm concerned at what has been happening to higher education in this country," Dr Dodson said. "Academics don't have enough time to conduct research or organise their courses and things are only going to get worse."

Warwick Gorman, a third-year town-planning student, said it was time for students to back staff in their efforts to improve conditions.

According to Jeanette Pierce, RMIT's branch president of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), almost the entire campus had been forced to close for the day. "Since we announced the strike we have been getting two or three applications a day from non-members to join the union," she said. "People are realising what government actions will mean to them in the future."

The strike was triggered by plans to link stringent industrial relations changes to A$404 million (£167 million) in additional funding. If universities want a share of the extra money, they will have to offer staff individual contracts.

The unions hope the action will show the level of opposition as well as showing vice-chancellors what they might face if they refused to conclude collective pay negotiations.

Strikers were cheered to learn the Australian National University had snubbed the government's line by signing a three-year agreement with the NTEU to provide a 17.5 per cent pay rise to staff, set limits on casual and fixed-term employment and offer 26 weeks' paid parental leave.

Grahame McCulloch, NTEU general secretary, said the agreement was "a rejection by both ANU management and the NTEU of the government's unwarranted and highly prescriptive interference in the internal affairs of universities".

Education minister Brendan Nelson rejected union claims that individual contracts were being forced on staff and insisted the government was committed to the view that "genuine choice should be available for all Australians, including university staff".

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