Unprecedented: Murdoch University terminates agreement with 3,500 staff

A dramatic Fair Work Commission decision to terminate the Murdoch University enterprise agreement is the latest indicator of a vicious turn in the class war in Australia. The agreement, which sets the pay and conditions for 3,500 university workers, will cease on 26 September.

Cancelling the agreement means that Murdoch will only be required to pay its staff award rates. According to the National Tertiary Education Union, wages under the award are between 25 and 39 percent lower than under the agreement and there are 70 fewer conditions.

Without the enterprise agreement, Murdoch staff will lose 26 weeks’ paid parental leave, 70 percent of their redundancy (academic staff) and 8 percent of their superannuation entitlements. The university will gain an unrestricted right to increase academic workloads, to restructure without consultation and to casualise and sack staff over minor issues. Conditions built up over decades have been discarded in one fell swoop.

Murdoch argued that its weak financial position required it to terminate its workplace agreement. Staff might be surprised that the university is blaming workers’ entitlements for its financial woes. In 2016, former vice chancellor Richard Higgott was found by the Western Australian Corruption and Crime Commission to have engaged in “serious misconduct”. Between 2012 and 2013, the university’s four senior executives spent more than $900,000 on Murdoch credit cards.

Yet the commission agreed that the “constraints and limitations the agreement imposes on Murdoch” have contributed to the university’s financial situation, and that removing “problematic” clauses will help it recover. The commission divided the agreement’s clauses into three groups.

First are those that “affect Murdoch’s ability to moderate staff behaviour” – clauses about misconduct and performance. Second are those that “affect Murdoch’s ability to make workplace change” – clauses that limit contracts, casualisation and workloads. Last are clauses that “cause red tape and expense” – annual leave, job classifications, union facilities and superannuation entitlements.

“Essentially, the employer is no longer willing to pay for entitlements it deems too expensive”, said one union activist after the decision.

The university has promised to maintain wage levels for current staff, as well as some conditions, for six months. After that, every condition and every dollar above the award will need to be won again.

Unprecedented in the higher education industry, applying to terminate an existing enterprise agreement is a tactic that has been tried and perfected in key blue collar workplaces over the last two years. A 2015 decision to allow a Queensland rail freight company, Aurizon, to terminate 12 separate enterprise agreements started a run of similar cases, including at the AGL Loy Yang power station in Victoria and the Griffin Coal Mine in Western Australia. The spread of this strategy to a large white collar workforce is proof that attacks on one section of the class flow through to all.

The decision will embolden other universities, many of whom are currently bargaining for a new agreement with the union. Kathy Reid, a partner at Minter Ellison, the firm that represented the university, has encouraged others to use the decision to attack the conditions of their own staff. “Hopefully this gives them a bit of reassurance to push back on them, and they should”, she told the Australian Financial Review.

We can expect more attacks on staff conditions and wages, as well as on the unions that can stand in the way. Murdoch has shown that universities can match the union-busting credentials of the worst Australian bosses.

We need a fightback. This has to involve organising and mobilising the workers who will suffer from these attacks, and who have the power to defeat management’s plans. Unfortunately, the strategy to this point has largely avoided the active involvement of members. In response to the decision, the union has joined the ACTU’s call to “change the rules”. While the Fair Work Act clearly favours the bosses and needs changing, these are Labor’s laws. There is no guarantee that anything will change after an election in two years’ time. And workers can’t wait that long to find out. We need real action now.