In a move unprecedented in the higher education sector, Murdoch University commenced proceedings in the Fair Work Commission to terminate its staff enterprise agreement. If Fair Work accedes to the University’s demands, the wages of more than 3,500 staff could be slashed by up to 39 percent and numerous hard-won conditions scrapped.
On 3 July, around 100 National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) members and supporters from several other unions rallied outside the Commission to demand Murdoch University negotiate with the union. The current enterprise agreement expired 12 months ago, leaving members without a pay rise over that period.
Late last year, negotiations between the NTEU and Murdoch University broke down. The NTEU balloted staff for industrial action. This campaign began in December with a one-day stoppage and rally, but was promptly aborted when the University announced it would apply to dissolve the existing agreement. At an initial hearing in January, the University was directed to resume negotiations with the NTEU.
“We need an agreement that reduces administrative burden and allows us to manage our business more effectively”, said Murdoch University director of people and culture, Michelle Narustrung. The University argues that terminating the agreement will “reset the clock and allow both parties to negotiate from a more workable starting point”.
Yet this new “starting point” would be the award, which provides for only the bare minimum entitlements. According to the NTEU, 70 of the 110 employment conditions protected by the enterprise agreement are not in the award.
NTEU general secretary Grahame McCulloch told the rally that the University’s attempt to dissolve the agreement “comes out of the mining industry playbook”, alluding to industrial tactics employed by mining industry giants in Queensland and Western Australia.
Almost exactly 12 months earlier, Griffin Coal applied successfully to the Fair Work Commission to terminate an AMWU-negotiated enterprise agreement covering maintenance workers at its Collie mine in Western Australia. AWMU organiser Glenn McLaren told the NTEU rally that “43 percent of our members’ wages have gone down the drain” as a result of the decision.
The moves by Griffin Coal and Murdoch University, among others, to enlist the help of the Fair Work Commission – established by the Gillard Labor government in 2009 – to help smash union agreements demonstrate that union-employer negotiations are never fought on a level playing field.
McCulloch told the rally that Murdoch University management has made 33 claims on the union. Twelve have been agreed while a dozen more are under negotiation. In contrast, the NTEU has withdrawn 17 of its claims, leaving just seven “core claims”.
The union remains resistant to management’s attempts to remove the requirement that it be consulted before decisions are made that effect major workplace change. The union is also opposing a proposal to reduce restrictions on the use of “fixed term” contracts and to widen the definition of employee “misconduct”. Additionally, the union is seeking a 6.5 percent pay rise over four years, while the University is offering 3 percent over the same period.
Unions WA secretary Meredith Hammat told the rally that the “workplace laws are broken: they are unfair and must change”.
However, the ACTU’s campaign to lobby parliamentarians for legal reform is unlikely to offer relief for Murdoch University employees whose conditions currently hang in the balance. Workplace meetings of NTEU members at Murdoch University over the last 12 months have attracted more than one hundred on each occasion and show that staff are willing to fight management’s offensive.
Yet union members have not met since February. If the campaign is to succeed, union members need to meet and prepare an industrial campaign to reverse this attack.