National Tertiary Education Union members and staff at Victoria University in Melbourne have defeated a second electronic ballot on management’s proposed non-union enterprise agreement. 

VU management have aggressively pursued a non-union agreement for nearly 12 months. They have torn up the existing union agreement, and their proposals, if successful, would strip university staff conditions back to Fair Work minimums in areas like consultation and being able to challenge a dismissal. 

Victoria University is relatively poor compared to prestigious institutions like Monash, UQ or Sydney Uni. It comprises both TAFE and higher education sectors, and enrols many students from Melbourne’s western and outer suburbs who are the first in their family to attend university. VU staff are already some of the lowest paid in the university sector. 

In addition, VU has been in a famously appalling financial position for the past few years, carrying a load of debt and lacking capital resources with which to buffer a drop in income from enrolments. 

Nevertheless, as union members, we should be sceptical when management cries poor. As usual, there is no cap on consultancies, executive pay or flight-of-fancy property investments. And in the last year, VU staff have delivered a massive transformation to the way courses are delivered. They’ve worked night and day to create the Block Model and the First Year College, in which a semester’s worth of subjects is studied in intensive blocks, one after the other, instead of being taken concurrently. 

The Block Model approach has been so successful for VU that its finances are now coming out of the red. And even if they weren’t, there wouldn’t be a Block Model at all without the dedication, creativity and hard work of VU academics and professional staff. We deserve to maintain our hard-won conditions, and to receive a real pay rise. 

Instead, VU management offer a deal that cuts the NTEU out, removes key conditions from the agreement and relegates them to “policy”, and would mean a pay cut in real terms. A non-union ballot in September 2018 was resoundingly defeated (77 percent voted No). Negotiations were suspended by the university just before Christmas, then in early February staff were suddenly confronted by wall-to-wall Yes propaganda from management. A second non-union ballot had been launched for the following week.

Disgustingly, management paid contract security staff, many of whom are union members, to put up their lying Yes posters around every campus, and rip down union material. Despite this, a determined core of union members and organisers kept on publicising the terrible offer and calling for another No vote.

The vote was an electronic ballot, conducted by Deloitte, whose representatives just happen to sit on senior university committees and function as regular consultants for the university. No scrutineering of the result was allowed. Apparently, 500 more staff voted than in the previous ballot, but the proportion of No votes dropped to 67 percent. This is still a heavy defeat for management, whether or not the figures can be wholly believed. 

Our challenge at VU now is to rebuild a union membership bruised from many years of restructuring and redundancies. We need to fight to preserve the working conditions that make university employment desirable – and win much better outcomes for staff on casual and fixed-term contracts. Importantly, we need to resist the narrative that says a university can’t find the money to pay staff what they need, deserve and are worth.