Universities rattled as multi-employer bargaining gets go-ahead

While unions see applications in the private college sector, Australian universities worry about being forced to enter collective bargaining

December 7, 2022
Reptile keepers hold a Scrub Python as it wraps itself around one keeper to illustrate Universities rattled as multi-employer bargaining gets go-ahead
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Australian universities and colleges fear they could be “roped into” generic workplace agreements, after the Labor government’s landmark industrial relations legislation passed parliament.

The “Secure Jobs, Better Pay” act allows unions to lodge applications for “single interest employer” authorisations that compel employers with similar characteristics to bargain collectively. Previously, only employers could request these authorisations, which were typically used to facilitate agreements with essentially identical employers such as franchised businesses.

The act also imposes more robust rights and responsibilities on parties negotiating multi-enterprise agreements and boosts the ability of the Fair Work Commission, Australia’s industrial umpire, to intervene. The National Tertiary Education Union said it was “delighted” with “these significant long-overdue reforms to Australia’s industrial relations system”.

“We’re supportive of putting more safeguards around bargaining to ensure workers aren’t accepting substandard offers,” said NTEU president Alison Barnes.

But universities fear the provision could impose common pay and conditions on institutions with vastly different staffing numbers, student cohorts and operating costs. “There is a genuine risk that universities will be exposed to industrial action on matters that are not relevant to them,” the Regional Universities Network warned in a submission to a Senate committee considering the legislation.

“This could fundamentally undermine the international standing of Australia’s universities.”

Dr Barnes scoffed at the “scare campaign” that universities would be exposed to industrial action “for no reason”. She said that while the union would “consider” whether multi-employer bargaining could benefit staff in public universities, the provision was “mainly designed” for sectors where little enterprise bargaining occurred.

“The biggest opportunity for multi-employer bargaining is in the largely unregulated private tertiary education sector, which has many workers on award and even sub-award conditions,” she said.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) said that with no enterprise agreements in operation, the non-university higher education sector was a natural target of multiple-employer agreements.

It accused the sector of using independent contractors to “avoid award entitlements”, with some staff receiving less than one-third of the award rate. “Being able to bargain collectively with multiple employers in that sector would help get wages moving again,” the ACTU submission to the Senate committee says.

Independent Higher Education Australia (IHEA) bristled at the ACTU’s “slur”, saying any evidence of wrongdoing by private college administrators should be reported to the Fair Work Ombudsman. But IHEA chief executive Peter Hendy expressed concern at the multi-employer bargaining provisions.

“The implications of independent providers being roped in on multi-employer agreements with the large multibillion-dollar public universities could have adverse consequences that will most likely indirectly impact on students,” Dr Hendy warned.

Privately, both union and university representatives consider it unlikely that anybody will seek to impose multi-employer agreements in the public higher education sector. Universities do not want to be bound by conditions designed for reasonably similar institutions, let alone bigger and richer ones. And unionists are conscious that single-enterprise bargaining has secured university staff some of the best workplace conditions in the country.

But university representatives worry that even if unions have no intention of bargaining with groups of universities, they may change their minds now that the law allows it, or use the possibility as a bargaining chip.

Carolyn Evans, president of the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association, said universities’ concerns remained. “I think we’ll have to wait and see what happens in practice,” said Professor Evans, vice-chancellor of Griffith University.


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