USyd NTEU endorses move to protected action ballot, new Branch President

The ballot would allow staff to take industrial action.

The University of Sydney branch of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday afternoon to endorse moving to a protected action ballot, which would allow for staff to take industrial action in the context of fraught enterprise bargaining with the University.

Around 300 NTEU members joined the branch meeting on Zoom, with the Union’s Bargaining Team contextualising the nine enterprise bargaining sessions so far. John Buchanan, on behalf of the Team, summarised the key differences between staff and management demands. 

While staff strongly emphasised the need to manage the “sheer volume of work” they are faced with, USyd management dismissed the claim that workloads are problematic. The Bargaining Team also highlighted the need for greater job security, especially in the context of widespread casualisation, with a “collegial” approach to decision-making. By contrast, management is pushing for the use of individual negotiations between staff and their managers. 

A key area of conflict is about the distribution of teaching and research work. The Bargaining team strongly advocated for maintaining the 40/40/20 model, where staff are allocated 40% research, 40% teaching, and 20% administration work. This model guarantees the ability to spend time on research, with staff previously expressing concern that undermining the model could create an “underclass” of casual teaching workers. On the other hand, University management has argued that the model reduces flexibility, arguing for individual negotiations about work allocation and uncapped teaching-only roles.

Finally, Buchanan spoke about the University’s approach to recruiting and retaining Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff, noting issues with retention are being met with a reduction of targets rather than cultural change to improve staff numbers.

The Bargaining Team ultimately presented three key recommendations. They expressed a desire to continue negotiations “in good faith”, however argued that staff need to send a clear signal of their frustration by mobilising within the NTEU. Third, they asked members to vote to allow the Union to commence the process of industrial action, by endorsing the move to a protected action ballot if required.

Discussion about the motion focussed on how best to negotiate greater job security while protecting research jobs, with some staff asking whether conversion to full-time education positions could help with decasualisation. Buchanan responded that the future of the University hinges on the “overwhelming bulk of its teachers also actively researching”, but noted that the NTEU is not being “dogmatic” in the bargaining process. Another member of the Bargaining Team, Michael Beggs, explained the broader context of teaching-only positions as a strategy for casualisation. Meera Atkinson pointed out that “many long-serving casuals have impressive research profiles” and should not be precluded from continuing important research. 

Damien Cahill, the NTEU’s NSW Division Secretary, discussed the attacks on staff across the tertiary education sector nationwide. He suggested that university managements across the country are trying to “slow things down and agree to as little as possible”, pointing to attacks on workers’ rights at UTS and Southern Cross University. He argued that university workers around Australia have a strong “mood for change” and appealed for solidarity between campuses in 2022.

Branch Committee member Alma Torlakovic spoke in support of the motion, warning that staff “should just assume we are going on strike” in order to protect existing working conditions as well as win improvements.

The motion passed overwhelmingly, with 291 votes in favour, two against and four abstaining. 

Opposition to the motion and an alternative resolution was proposed by Zac Hambides in the chat, however it was not debated.

The meeting also endorsed Nick Riemer for NTEU USyd Branch President, with members praising Riemer’s transparency, “staunchness” and thanking outgoing President Patrick Brownlee.

The Branch also voted resoundingly in favour of a motion in support of the NSW Teachers’ Federation industrial action, with current Branch Vice President (General Staff) Jen Harrison drawing parallels between academics’ and teachers’ struggles with pay and workload. A motion in support of a three-day strike action by academics in the UK also passed, with Riemer suggesting that “the struggle for better public universities is a transnational one” and expressing solidarity with staff at University College London facing the administration of  “our beloved Michael Spence”.

New USyd SRC Education Officer Deaglan Godwin spoke to staff, offering student support for industrial action on behalf of student education activists.