Staff at the University of Sydney Union are angry with the Board’s decision to cut staff hours across the organisation to 40 per cent. The decision, announced on Tuesday, was met with considerable backlash from USU workers at a staff forum which saw Board Directors questioned, Senate appointed directors fail to show up, and newly appointed President Irene Ma cry.
The new cut, implemented from next Monday, is the latest austerity measure from the organisation. The workforce was already operating on 60 per cent hours, and many staff members were laid off at the beginning of the pandemic.
Importantly, seemingly no staff — with the exception of senior management — were consulted about the decision, with workers only finding out about the cut after the decision had already been voted on during an in camera Board meeting. Yet staff say there was some sense that another cut was possible, with a casual worker describing the feeling as one of “impending doom” amongst their colleagues.
Several staff members alleged that members of the Board wanted to carry out the vote before the new Board Directors were even officially inducted. Additionally, staff allege that acting CEO Jess Reed and some heads of department attempted to talk the Board down from the decision, noting that the USU’s finances weren’t that dire.
Honi understands that the decision was initially considered at a Special Meeting on 21 July, but that it was then voted on at a meeting on 24 July — the day the Board Directors finished their three-day induction. In response to debate and discussion occurring prior to induction, one worker told Honi, “How can they even know what they’re looking at?”
Staff believe the vote was “pretty unanimous”, with one worker noting that “from speaking to some of the Board Directors, the staff get the sense that they are lying to them, and know that some have lied to some of the staff about which way they voted on this particular motion.”
Another worker told Honi, “we’re all pretty disgusted with the Board” before going on to describe them as “inexperienced children … in charge of something they don’t understand.”
The decisions of the Board are clearly having profound impacts on USU workers.
“Staff have had months of lower pay and have been working themselves to the bone to get things done. They’ve felt the full weight of decisions made by the past Board. This has just proven to staff that the new Board is no different. All trust has been completely thrown out the window, and we’re three weeks into their term.”
Many of the new Board Directors campaigned on platforms of better support for workers, a focus on mental health, and greater transparency and consultation within the organisation.
“In their first few weeks, they’ve already proven they mean none of it”, a staff member asserts.
All the staff members Honi spoke to believed that the decision to further cut hours was unnecessary, and that the USU’s financial position is not as bad as it is being made out to be.
“Most outlets are closed, our Info Hubs are closed, no events are occurring, the government covers a large chunk of staff incomes. How are we bleeding enough money to justify this when we actually do have people on campus now?”
Another worker commented, “Why should all staff have to pay for this instead of management? Why aren’t cash reserves being used up?”
Many workers were also quick to point out that Board Directors still have perks such as free meal cards and the fact that their induction was catered by HostCo.
The decision to reduce hours is one that will likely see staff work additional hours unpaid, one worker tells Honi.
“It’s inevitable that staff will be working more than they’re paid to. I know that people are checking emails and calling us on days they’re not supposed to be in the office already, and now they’re going to be paid even less.”
Yet, whilst there is certainly anger at the student Board Directors, some staff reserve more criticism for the Senate appointed directors, given the students’ relative inexperience and age. Indeed, there is a feeling amongst some that the Senate’s alleged influence in the result of this year’s Executive Election comes into play.
“They can throw their weight around a lot more, and have done in terms of this decision, they’ve been the ones pushing for it”, a staff member alleges.
“I have it on good authority that the Senate appointed directors are taking a very active role”, another member of staff notes.
“It’s quite obvious they have an agenda. It’s quite difficult to piece together what the agenda is, but they definitely have one.”
There was uncertainty amongst the staff Honi spoke to as to whether a full or partial takeover of the USU by the University is on the cards, yet there was no doubt that they believe the Senate is, via its directors, playing a more hands on role in the organisation.
The USU has provided no real indication as to how long these cuts might be in place for, only saying that conditions will improve once campus returns to a degree of normalcy. Yet, even then, the organisation is apparently not promising staff full salaries, instead saying they might only go up incrementally.
Honi did not receive the USU’s press release regarding the recent cuts, as has previously been standard practice by the Board. Press releases are sent out by the President.