Sydney University enterprise agreement: why I’m voting No

30 May 2023
Alma Torlakovic

NTEU Fightback, a rank-and-file union group of the National Tertiary Education Union at the University of Sydney, is calling on staff to vote No in the upcoming ballot on the proposed enterprise agreement. The campaign was launched at a forum on 25 May, attended by over 50 people. A members’ meeting on 13 June will consider the agreement. This week will probably be the first time that members are provided with a full list of proposed changes to our working conditions.

The bare minimum unionists should fight for in a new agreement should be no diminution of conditions and a real pay rise. That means no setbacks to existing clauses in the agreement, which were fought for by previous generations of workers. “Protecting wages” means a pay rise above the rate of inflation, particularly seeing as our real wages have already gone backwards over the last couple of years.

On both fronts, the proposed agreement fails to deliver.

The changes to the agreement represent some of the biggest attacks on our pay and conditions in decades. Details of these attacks have been covered in the USyd NTEU Fightback bargaining summary statement and recent articles in Red Flag.

To note some of the worst aspects:

A real pay cut. The average HEO5 worker at Sydney University would be close to $20,000 worse off by the end of the new agreement, relative to inflation. These savings go straight to university management, which is already sitting on a surplus of hundreds of millions of dollars.

An explosion of exploitative “education-focused” roles. These roles are 70 percent focused on teaching, breaking from the 40/40/20 research/teaching/admin model. Under the proposed agreement, management will have the capacity to create 650 of these roles, up from a cap of 120 in the previous agreement. Teaching-only academics do hours of unpaid labour. Management has refused to place a limit on the maximum weekly hours to be worked in these roles.

Further attacks on casuals. The new agreement fails to address the crisis of casualisation at the university. According to the university’s records, the casual workforce amounts to more than 4,000 people. But of the 110 new 40/40/20 balanced roles to be created by mid-2026, only half would go to long-term casuals, via a competitive application process.

The current offer also introduces a new kind of precarious labour: 350 PhD fellowships, which would result in PhD students teaching anywhere between three to five tutorials each week for around $340. The Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association has released a statement raising concerns about the exploitative potential of these roles.

One-hour shifts. Minimum engagement is also under attack. At the most recent NTEU members’ meeting, it came to light that the new agreement would allow management the “flexibility” of spreading a three-hour shift over two or three days. Yes, you read that right: a three-hour shift that could be spread over three days. No self-respecting unionist should accept this kind of setback. The justification provided by the union’s bargaining team was that this would be allowed only with the worker’s agreement. But a precarious casual who desperately needs every hour of work they can get is less likely to refuse the only shift that may be on offer.

Weakening the minimum engagement clause would save management millions of dollars. The University of Technology, Sydney has recently been forced to compensate professional casuals $4.4 million for not paying them their full three-hour entitlement. The University of Newcastle and Charles Sturt University have also been forced to repay millions to casuals for failing to pay them for the minimum engagement hours. These sums demonstrate what’s at stake. Normalising one-hour shifts at Sydney University would set a terrible precedent for other universities and, like all other attacks, would have flow-on consequences to other industries.

Pay for all hours worked. In addition to the above attacks, the proposed agreement includes purported “gains” that don’t stand up to scrutiny. For instance, the “pay for all hours worked” clause fails to ensure that casuals are indeed paid for all their work. The proposed clause doesn’t guarantee payment for attending lectures, reading necessary texts, or any other work that may be essential for doing their job properly but has not been explicitly directed by management.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment. This currently hovers at around 1 percent at Sydney University, despite decades of platitudes from management and the union leaders about raising the figure. Jeremy Heathcote, University of Sydney/NSW Division First Nations representative and Fightback member, explained at the 24 May “Vote No” meeting that the fine print of the clause doesn’t require management to lift this figure to population parity, as has been demanded during our industrial campaign.

A new Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Joint Consultative Committee would decide whether “sufficient” progress is being made. The committee has 50 percent union representation—but one of the three union reps is from the Community and Public Sector Union, which has not mentioned parity targets in its log of claims. So there is no guarantee that parity will be achieved.

The real winner with this agreement is university management.

It is fair to ask, then, why it was endorsed by 52 percent of those at the NTEU members’ meeting on 18 April. The meeting took place in the context of a fear-mongering campaign pushed by the NTEU national office and by the right-wing faction of the USyd branch, Thrive.

Members were told that continuing the industrial campaign would risk an employer ballot (over the head of the union), or having the dispute declared “intractable” and shunted into arbitration. Yet employer ballots can be defeated (and have been in the past at Sydney University) by consistent organising. And any application under the new “intractable disputes” clauses of the Fair Work Act would take many months to wind through the system, during which time the industrial pressure on management could be increased.

Added to this was the overstatement of bargaining “wins” by the moderate faction, Rank and File Action, three of whose members are on the bargaining team.

We cannot sell the lie that a deal containing a real wage cut and other major concessions on working conditions is anything other than a victory for management. So let’s not compound the losses in the new agreement by endorsing them.

A vigorous campaign to vote No to these attacks is important. We cannot rebuild union power by doing the bidding of management. We have to fight against this agreement, not point out one or two sweeteners that management has thrown in to make the whole rotten package appear more palatable. We may not win, but we sure as hell need to register our opposition to these historic attacks, rather than embrace them. What credibility could we possibly have as a union that fights for its members if we simply concede?

Campaigning to vote No will be important for future battles. As a recent article in the US union publication Labor Notes stated: “Like all organizing, no effort is ever wasted—even if a particular vote no campaign loses the vote”. What we do today will lay the basis for what we do tomorrow. It can also inspire NTEU members at other campuses to not accept a rotten deal from their own bosses.

I’m voting No, and campaigning for others to do the same. It is the principled thing to do when faced with a concessionary, regressive deal like this one.

The clauses of the proposed agreement are due to be made available to members any day now. Keep an eye on USyd Fightback’s social media and website for the latest news and detailed analysis, as well as information about how you can get involved in the vote No campaign.

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