Thursday, July 2, 2020
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‘Battle for the heart of the union’: NTEU at war over university pay cuts

A secretly negotiated union deal to cut university staff pay by up to 15% has led to an insurgency against the NTEU national executive that has been described as a battle “for the heart of this union”.


Over 1100 National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) members have signed on to the NTEU Fightback campaign, to protest the union’s decision to support pay cuts for staff of up to 15% with minimal consultation.

More than 300 members attended a maxed-out Zoom call on Wednesday night (with excess spilling over into a Discord server) to organise the campaign against the framework, formulated by the NTEU’s national executive, which argues it is essential to save jobs.

The NTEU Fightback campaign is being led by Katie Wood (University of Melbourne), Alma Torlakovic (University of Sydney) and Liam Ward (RMIT University), all three of whom are branch committee members, delegates and National Councillors with the NTEU.

“There’s a battle going on for the heart of this union,” Ward told Voice of Action.

“Do we want a union that commits itself to wage class struggle to resist the attacks of the bosses at all moments, or do we want a union that goes down the SDA path of trying to stitch up deals behind closed doors as essentially an arm of management?”

Ward accused the NTEU national executive of trying to ram through a deal with university management without giving the required notice and time to debate, or properly consulting with the branches or rank and file membership.

“They’ve rushed into concessions and pay cuts before even really having a fight,” said Ward.

“We haven’t had a good fight with university management let alone with the Federal Government. The first we heard about pay cuts was in mid April, they’ve admitted they were negotiating since mid March.”

Liam Ward holding up a sign at a recent NTEU rally

But Ben Eltham, president of the NTEU Monash branch and National Councillor, who supports the NTEU’s proposed deal, said modelling showed 21,000 jobs could be lost at Australian universities, so “faced with this catastrophe” unions and staff could negotiate with management or sit on the sidelines.

“No one believes strike action is likely – or even possible – in the current environment,” Eltham told Voice of Action.

“Under the Fair Work Act as it now stands, universities can legally stand down any and all workers right away. Casuals are already being let go and contracts are already not being renewed.”

Ward said he did not consider NTEU to be a yellow union but rather the leadership wanted to keep its seat at the table and did not understand that the only way unions win concessions is when they organise and resist. He said the union had also shown a “contempt for democracy” by being unwilling to consider the wishes of the rank and file membership.

“At the end of the day they still need us, the universities still need our labour and that gives us power and leverage, and we haven’t even started to look at ways to wield that power,” said Ward.

“And it’s because the union executive don’t see their role as organising resistance to the cuts, they see their roles as negotiating where those cuts should be inflicted and how.”

Eltham said no jobs would be saved by “standing on the sidelines and hurling abuse at the vice-chancellors”, which would “only clear the way for university managements to slash and burn through our sector”.

The NTEU Fightback campaign disputes the threat of stand downs and believes that the framework offers only minimal protections above the statutory protections already afforded to workers under the Fair Work Act.

Torlakovic, the University of Sydney NTEU branch committee member, said the NTEU framework claims only 12,000 out of 30,000 jobs claimed to be at risk would be saved, but “does not even specify how universities would be held to account on that”.

“In fact, some of the managing change clauses in enterprise agreements would be replaced by unspecified, rapid ad hoc processes which would make it easier to sack staff,” Torlakovic told Voice of Action.

“The fact that the Liberal Party Education Minister Dan Tehan has welcomed the deal says it all. Even the UTS VC this morning has emailed all staff to say he thinks some of the measures in the deal are ‘severe’.”

Alma Torlakovic questions whether the NTEU deal will save jobs

The Community and Public Sector Union, which represents non-academic staff at universities in NSW, has slammed the NTEU executive for its “knee jerk response”, saying there was a range of smarter cost saving measures universities could take before an indiscriminate slash to wages.

“It would seem the NTEU’s leather-elbow-patched-brigade would rather librarians, student services and admin staff on less than $70,000 take a 15% cut to their pay, than see their travel allowances reduced,” said CPSU NSW assistant general secretary Troy Wright.

CPSU wants universities to cease capital works, terminate contingent labour and have a thorough review of executive salaries before beginning pay cuts. The union wants universities to open their books and “demonstrate they’ve exhausted all their borrowings”.

The NTEU executive did not respond to questions but in a statement said universities were set to lose up to $5 billion during this year alone and were excluded from the government’s Jobkeeper wage subsidy program. It believes the proposed deal could save 12,000 jobs.

Under the deal, which the universities still have to agree to, staff would face pay cuts of between 5-15% but no university employee would be involuntarily stood down without pay. Displaced casual and fixed-term staff would be “prioritised for new work”.

But the NTEU Fightback supporters say the deal represents the biggest assault on wages and conditions in living memory and the job protection guarantees were no stronger than protections already enshrined in their EBA. Casual staff were also not protected by the deal.

NTEU national president Alison Barnes said “there are no perfect options in a crisis” and pointed the finger at the federal government for failing to come up with a crisis package for universities.

NTEU delegate and member for five years, Connor Jolley, said he was “bitterly disappointed” that his first industrial fight since being active in the union on the shopfloor has been “effectively against the union leadership selling out its members”.

Jolley told Voice of Action that members were prepared to fight “and we want a leadership that will stand with us in that fight”.

“The members I talk to are just so angry that our leadership has chosen to negotiate in secret with the university bosses, with minimal consultation with branches, much less the rank and file,” said Jolley.

“My fear is that the national leadership will exert considerable pressure to force weaker, less organised branches into compliance then tout this facade of a process as a ‘democratic’ exercise.”

Jolley said he was personally concerned about the provision in the framework that prevents external appointments, as his casual contract expired late last year and “basically I won’t be able to work for the entire duration of my PhD”.

Alana West, a casual University of Technology Sydney worker, said she would be less mad about the NTEU deal if the union had “literally fought at all”, and it was a “cop out” to blame the federal government for not bailing out the sector.

“Why would a conservative government bail out a sector it hates, when the union leadership have already publicly stated they’re negotiating to cop the burden?,” said West.

The government appears to have an ideological bent against universities, changing the rules several times to exclude them from the Jobkeeper package.

During an adjournment speech in the Senate this week, Liberal senator James Patterson slammed universities for their “overreliance” on international students “and the Chinese student market in particular”.

Patterson said claims that universities have been forced to rely on overseas students due to a lack of government funding was “a convenient story that attempts to absolve universities from responsibility for decisions they have made, and it’s a false one”.

But Ward said universities had experienced “a decade long privatisation by stealth”, with government funding for the higher education sector dropping from 85% two decades ago to 45% today.

“It’s so appalling that our union’s national leadership are now officially in the game of endorsing pay cuts because the message this sends to the federal government is that we’re not serious when we demand that they should fund the sector,” said Ward.

“Instead we’re saying you don’t have to fund this we’ll take it out of our own pay.”

Labor and the Greens are attempting to force the government to include universities in the Jobkeeper package but it is understood that even if it is extended to them they will still struggle to survive in a market where overseas students are unable to come here for some time.

In parliament this week Labor’s shadow minister for education, Tanya Plibersek, asked Treasurer Josh Frydenberg to explain why a university student working one shift per week receives the full $1500 Jobkeeper wage subsidy, but their full-time university tutor with three kids to support is not eligible.

Frydenberg said in response that universities were already getting $18 billion in Commonwealth government grants.

The NTEU framework, if agreed to, would be in place until the second half of next year and could also be extended by another year. The union’s National Executive will vote on the deal, then the National Council will vote next week, then members will vote via electronic ballot.

Three of the largest NTEU branches have already passed motions condemning the framework.

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