Hundreds of National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) members from across the country have mobilised over recent weeks against the so-called National Job Protections Framework that the union’s national executive is promoting.

The Framework would allow university bosses to impose pay cuts of up to 15 percent on employees. Negotiations for the deal were conducted in secret, and the national executive has pulled out every trick to manufacture consent for the deal among the union membership. Many NTEU members have been shocked that their union’s leadership is supporting this historic attack on workers’ pay and conditions. But union members at the University of New England (UNE) have very recent experience of the national executive pushing through a deal with management, contradicting union members’ interests and their express wishes.

NTEU Fightback campaigner and RMIT NTEU branch committee member Alex McAulay spoke to Tim Battin of the UNE NTEU branch committee about the national executive’s recent intervention into enterprise bargaining at UNE.


AM: The UNE NTEU branch committee had been bargaining for a new Enterprise Bargaining Agreement with university management for over two years. Members of the union branch had engaged in industrial action during 2018 and 2019, but UNE management were still dragging out the process. Can you provide us with some background about your enterprise bargaining campaign? What were members' key demands, and what was management digging their heels in over?  

TB: After two and a half years of bargaining, the key matter over which management was digging in were academic workloads. Academic workload at UNE has for 15 years or more had an enforceable Equivalent Full Time Student Load (EFTSL) limit, which is what management wanted to abolish. It was obvious to the union’s bargaining team, and to many members – especially given management was in denial about how work-intensive online education is – that the reason management wanted to abolish the EFTSL limit is that it wants to increase average and maximum loads. 

AM: The hours-based academic workload model used at most Australian universities, which UNE wanted to adopt, is notoriously ineffective. Union members at UNE had taken strike action in June 2019 in defence of limits on student loads and the EFTSL workload model. In August 2019 the union members were about to ramp up pressure on management through imposing work bans on online tutorials and entry of assessment results. It was around this point that the national office of the NTEU intervened into bargaining at UNE. What did the National Executive’s intervention into bargaining at UNE look like? 

TB: There was a sudden change in the attitude of the National office around August – September 2019. On 20 August Michael Thomson [NSW State Secretary] attended a members’ meeting at UNE and indicated his support for the branch’s campaign.

But at the end of August 2019 the national and state leadership seemed to suddenly get cold feet about the branch’s approach to bargaining.

We were told that we should not impose our work bans, as management would take us to the industrial commission to have them stopped. Our attitude was that if the managers went to the commission to prevent us from taking action, they will put our members so off side that they will never get an agreement from us.

The NSW state secretary then invited himself to the UNE bargaining table in September 2019 and sent up the white flag. He was no sooner in the room than he signalled that he wanted to give management what they wanted. What he said was along the lines of “we want to get this done” and “I think we are very close”. We still had the main matter of academic workload to sort out – we were nowhere near one another.

Over September and October, the branch bargaining team members tried our best to salvage the most important principles from our workload claim when we were dealing with the state secretary and the assistant state secretary. We were wasting our time. They took no notice of what we had to say. The state division and management started cancelling bargaining meetings with each other’s knowledge.

When our two national councillors went to Melbourne in early October they were ambushed. They were pulled aside and separated from one another by members of the national executive and each told that they had to toe the line of the national office.

AM: What did the deal they struck with management look like? What was the response to the deal from members when the national executive took it to members’ meetings?

TB: The deal they cobbled together abolished an enforceable student limit on workload, to be replaced by a joint workloads committee to “look at” time-based measurement of workloads.

In all, six UNE union meetings held between October 2019 to February 2020. When the confrontation with the national and state office occurred, the members backed the local bargaining team on every occasion.

On 3 December a UNE NTEU general meeting passed a motion instructing the state and national leadership not to meet with management in secret. On 10 December the national office called their own “members’ meeting” over the heads of the branch committee. In the meeting the national leadership presented a PowerPoint headed “time to settle” outlining their workloads deal. People were furious. 52 members in a meeting of 73 displayed their loyalty to the local bargaining team by walking out with us. 

After the walk-out the national and state officers proceeded to have someone put a motion to the remaining members in the room, which they then took as a blank cheque to go ahead with their deal.

AM: The new enterprise agreement was put to a vote of all staff at UNE earlier this year. During the ballot, what sort of arguments did the national executive and UNE management use to push the deal? And how did the UNE branch argue for a “no” vote, when it was our own union pushing the deal?

TB:  The NTEU national and state officers wore the members down by spooking them about UNE management’s supposed intention to terminate the agreement. It should be said that at no stage did management ever use those words to us, the local reps.

Once the deal was made, the NTEU state and national officers sent “vote yes” emails that looked like they came from the branch. The branch had to rely on sending its own emails to urge members to vote no. The branch organiser was told not to send emails that contradicted the national and state position.

AM: I understand that losing the ballot to the combined forces of UNE Management and the NTEU national executive was quite a blow for the UNE NTEU branch. A number of your members have nevertheless thrown themselves straight into the campaign to vote no to the National Framework.

What has been the attitude of union members at UNE to the NTEU national executive’s proposed National Framework? Are there particular lessons you have taken from your recent experiences into the new campaign?

TB: I’m getting calls from members all the time. What is heartening is that it isn’t just the members who already know that the national and state officials have lost the plot; it’s other members as well.

The most salient lesson I have taken from the experience is to do whatever one can about addressing a disengaged membership. It was the disengagement of the members that was their biggest enemy – apart from the two tangible enemies of management and union bosses – in the enterprise bargaining round. Before this “COVID cave-in” by the NTEU I thought UNE members (and non-members) would need until the end of 2020 or the early part of 2021 to work out who was telling them the truth and learn their lesson. But the COVID cave-in might have brought forward such a realisation.