A meeting of 200 National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) members at Murdoch University on 14 March voted overwhelmingly to endorse a new enterprise agreement.
The meeting’s vote clears the way for an all-staff ballot beginning on 22 March. However, in a move described as undemocratic by some union members, attendees were asked to vote on the draft without being permitted to view it. Instead, a few hours before the meeting, members received a “summary” of the agreement.
The campaign for a new enterprise agreement began in April 2016, with union members adopting a log of claims seeking to address a range of matters, including equity of superannuation contributions for all employees, a peer review process for academic workloads and a 15 percent increase in wages over the life of the agreement. However, over the course of the campaign, the bargaining team has shifted to advocating conditions “broadly comparable to those enjoyed by staff at the other WA universities”.
The campaign was lacklustre from the beginning. Negotiations dragged on with little progress. In August 2017, in a dramatic move intended to turn the tables on the NTEU, Murdoch University successfully applied to the Fair Work Commission to terminate the existing enterprise agreement, forcing a potentially drastic reduction in wages and conditions for the university’s 3,500 employees.
The NTEU responded by convening a lunchtime meeting of union members that agreed to stop work for the remainder of the day and establish a campaign committee. On 26 September, the day the termination came into force, NTEU members rallied on campus and again stopped work for the afternoon. However, no further industrial action occurred.
The proposed agreement continues a trend of declining employment conditions in higher education. Pay increases vary, but will average around 5.5 percent over the life of the four-year agreement. A pay rise of approximately 1 percent per year is a pay cut in real terms.
Rights to convert from fixed term to permanent employment, not watertight in the old agreement, are significantly weakened. Any application for conversion to ongoing employment is now subject to refusal on “reasonable business grounds”.
The previous agreement had very strong protections for academic staff against being sacked for misconduct, including an obligation on the investigator to interview witnesses, and a three-person review panel with guaranteed NTEU representation. The new agreement reduces these protections significantly – there is no requirement for the initial investigation to interview witnesses, and a single “independent reviewer” now looks at written submissions only.
The new agreement makes it much easier, and less expensive, for the university to make new employees redundant. Maximum redundancy payment for new professional staff will be reduced by 20 weeks in total, and a 26-week redeployment period for professional staff has been scrapped.
Academic workloads also remain a concern, with a teaching allocation for academic staff of up to 80 percent of workload (up from a maximum of 75 percent in the old agreement). Clauses that attempted to maximise research or teaching/research roles and ensure “a reasonable mix of teaching, research and scholarship, and service” for academic workers, which weren’t strong in the old agreement, disappear entirely in the new.
University policy changes impacting on employment conditions (such as promotion, travel and access to research time) used to be subject to consultation via groups with union representation. These consultative groups disappear in the proposed new agreement: there is no provision for consultation for changes that fall short of the threshold for “major change” such as redundancy or a large scale restructure.
A clause in the old agreement stating that the university “will provide” facilities including a workstation and email to casual staff is watered down to “reasonable access” to facilities that “may include” a workstation and email.
Union rights are also reduced – there is no longer “reasonable time” available for union reps to consult with their fellow workers.
Outside the agreement itself, there is no commitment from Murdoch University management to abandon legal action against two NTEU officials. Murdoch University alleges that NTEU state secretary Gabe Gooding and industrial officer Alex Cousner took “illegitimate” action in 2016, including social media and website posts, tweets, emails and posters, supposedly to “coerce” the university to abandon its application to terminate the enterprise agreement.
This is a disappointing outcome for Murdoch University’s workforce, which could have been avoided with a membership-driven industrial campaign. This would have entailed a concerted effort to raise expectations, and to organise seriously towards widespread industrial action. As the NTEU has repeatedly asserted, “Murdoch staff deserve better!”