The Sydney Morning Herald

Strike action an academic exercise

Author: Sarah-Jane Collins
Date: 25/02/2013
Words: 934
Source: SMH
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Education
Page: 12
Finding common ground is proving difficult in negotiations for a new staff enterprise bargaining agreement, writes Sarah-Jane Collins.

Damien Cahill's office is on the top floor of the University of Sydney's Merewether Building, a 1960s grey-brown brick structure that houses economists, political scientists and business academics. Dr Cahill is the chairman of the department of political economy and a vocal member of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), which is in a dispute with the university over a new enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) for some staff.

On February 15, union members voted to take industrial action - the details of which are yet to be decided - in an attempt to pressure the university to back down on a series of proposals in the draft EBA that some staff say will destroy fundamental rights and damage the institution.

The bones of contention, the union says, include changes to the way research, teaching and administrative time is divided; inadequate consultation over job losses; restructures and performance management; and disagreement over allowances for further casualisation of staff.

The union says the proposed changes to the EBA will affect academic and general (administration and other non-teaching and research roles) staff.

Dr Cahill says the university's proposals are "aggressive" and seek to remove staff control.

"This is an incredibly radical agenda ... unprecedented in the sector. If this went ahead the University of Sydney management would be at the vanguard of a movement to strip back the rights of university staff and the union in the sector," he said.

The university's vice-chancellor, Dr Michael Spence, points out that only 21 per cent of university staff are members of the NTEU, and says he does not believe the union's current campaign is widely supported.

"This is about becoming a more flexible working environment ... it's what our staff have been telling us for a long time they'd actually like," Dr Spence said. He added the university could not afford the NTEU's demand for a pay increase of 7 per cent a year for its members.

"[We exist] in an environment where our conditions are well above community standards and we pay more than any other university," Dr Spence said.

"We have seen, in the past few years, a significant real decline in government funding, where the government has just said it's not going to increase funding."

Claire Parfitt, a tutor and research student in the faculty of arts, is one of a growing number of casuals working at the university. She wants any new labour agreement with the university to provide pathways for staff to transition into permanent roles.

"The changes proposed [in the draft EBA] continue a process of undermining the strong working conditions that academic and general staff have had at this institution for a long time. As a casual, that's something I've been feeling for a long time," Ms Parfitt said, adding that there was no job security for casuals who work at the university.

"It's semester-by-semester and it really isn't appropriate for people who are trying to build a life," she said.

The NTEU branch president, Michael Thomson, claims some university staff do not trust management after a bitter dispute in 2012 over redundancies and restructuring.

"The management appeared to want to take this very slowly and not really engage with the union's claims or concerns," Mr Thomson said.

He said the NTEU was also opposed to proposals by the University of Sydney to remove the union as a party to the EBA and change the union's on-campus arrangements.

"[The university's proposal] is an insult to university staff; it is an insult to the university," Mr Thomson said.

Dr Spence said university staff would have access to their union (as is required by law), but he said the university wanted the union to pay for the on-campus office space it occupied.

He said the university could not afford to provide free space to non-university organisations.

The university has already made one change to the proposed new EBA.

Dr Spence told Fairfax last week, then notified university staff via email, that the university would not pursue the removal of a clause in the draft EBA that allowed staff to publicly offer opinions that may differ from the views of the institution.

"I accept that [the clause's] removal from the draft agreement has caused unnecessary anxiety and suspicion among some staff, and for that, I apologise," Dr Spence wrote in his email.

"I am happy to agree that our next enterprise agreement will again contain a specific statement in support of intellectual freedom, a principle which, as a community, we must support at all costs."

The NTEU will meet on February 27 to discuss its next step.

Dr Spence says the threat of a possible strike by some staff is disappointing for students, but he does not anticipate any industrial action would have a significant impact on the university.

"Do I think that industrial action will bring the university to its knees? It wasn't the experience of UNSW [University of NSW] when they had 18 months of rolling industrial action," Dr Spence said.

The Students Representative Council president, David Pink, says students support the union's right to strike.

"The EBA doesn't just affect staff," Mr Pink said.

"In the long term, we all benefit from good teachers with quality working conditions, who aren't overworked and actually have time to do research."

But Dr Spence is adamant the university must change to survive - and that includes new EBAs.

"You can't be charming and chaotic and survive in the 21st century," he said.

"Gothic is great for the Quadrangle, but it ain't great for university administration."

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