At a closed staff forum this afternoon, the University of Sydney Union (USU) announced a cut to staff wages of 40% by reducing the staff workload to 60% across the organisation. This follows layoffs of much of the USU’s casual staff, during a period of financial difficulty for the organisation as a result of the campus closure.
This will be effective until Friday 26 June, pending further extension and updates from the University regarding the return of students to campus.
Staff told Honi that they had not been consulted prior to the decision. Aside from beginning to sell grocery boxes, it is unclear what steps, if any, the Board has taken to remedy its financial situation before approving the cut.
Given it does not appear in publicly available Board meeting minutes, it appears that the cut was decided in-camera by the Board. Though the cut would have been voted for by a majority of board directors, it is unknown at this time how individual board directors voted.
A staff member told Honi “It’s rough, but it’s not as bad as it could’ve been. At least no one’s been fired.”
At a Special Meeting of the Board last night, USU President Connor Wherrett stated that the USU was facing an “extraordinarily difficult” period financially. When asked by Honi, he stated that the largest operating expenditure for the USU was staff.
When pressed, Wherrett would not say what the exact funding shortfall was for the USU over this semester, stating that the Board “wanted to put its best consistent foot forward” for potential sponsors at the upcoming Annual General Meeting.
As a result, Honi emailed all sitting board directors as to whether they were considering further staff layoffs or cuts. Five replied: Wherrett, Senate-appointed director Marie Leech, first year student board director Irene Ma (Advance), second year student board director and Vice President Lachlan Finch (Liberal) and first year student board director Nick Forbutt (NLS). All stated that they would not respond to the questions.
Ma, Forbutt and Finch cited section 8.2(a) of the USU Constitution, which states that amongst other duties, it is the President’s duty to make representations on behalf of the Board and defend its policies and decisions. None of the questions put to the directors regarded decisions or policies of the Board, only their opinions.
This appears an inaccurate interpretation of the provision. No provision, including section 8.2(a), specifically bars board directors from speaking about what policies they are deciding upon or what decisions have been made by the Board. Section 8.2 lists a number of duties of the USU President, some of which are also exercised by other members of the Board. USU board directors also regularly publicly promote the Board’s popular decisions and policies on their social media accounts.
Current Board policy means that decisions about staff pay occur in-camera. When asked for the justification behind this at yesterday’s Special Board Meeting, Wherrett stated that he didn’t know and Honi should ask the policy’s drafter, believed to be Kade Denton, a 2013-15 student board director.
Almost all current board directors, including Wherrett, criticised the lack of transparency of the Board when they ran for directorship. Several board candidates for the upcoming USU election, including Prudence Wilkins-Wheat, Jiale Wang, Ruby Lotz do as well. Lotz in particular is promising a transparency review, last conducted in 2014.
Honi has reached out to USU CEO Alexis Roitman and USU President Connor Wherrett for comment. We have also reached out to all directors on how they voted, in addition to asking for comment from Unions NSW.
We will update this article as more information comes in.