A meeting of around 450 members of the Sydney branch of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) today voted to endorse a log of workers’ claims in advance of Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) negotiations, with 97% in support.
Renegotiated every four years, the EBA will determine wages and employment conditions for all staff employed by the University of Sydney, and will be developed through bargaining between unionists and management. The log of claims sets out the NTEU’s goals in the upcoming negotiations.
In 2013, the University sought to strip away staff conditions in its proposed EBA, culminating in a long industrial dispute which saw staff strike for seven days and police make arrests at the picket line. 2017 negotiations also saw staff and students go on strike.
Strikes appear likely this time round too, with industrial action forecast either early in Semester 2 this year, or at the beginning of the next academic year.
NTEU members have suggested that University management is taking a “hostile” approach to the negotiations, with their bargaining team outsourced to a senior Melbourne-based labour law partner from elite firm Clayton Utz. Unusually, there will be no management representatives from the Faculties on the University’s bargaining team.
Today’s meeting was delayed by a number of months as casual staff members and others in the Branch Committee sought to negotiate a more detailed and comprehensive log of claims that members are willing to “fight for.”
Joel Griggs of the USyd Casuals Network and NTEU Branch Committee told Honi that this was “the strongest log of claims we have seen in a very long time.”
The finalised log of claims was reached over months of consultation, and prioritises fighting wage theft, promoting conversions for casuals, ending forced redundancies, reducing staff workloads, and increasing employment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
In a supporting statement, the NTEU declared that while staff adapted to significant changes as the University cried poor during COVID, management continues to exploit even after posting positive financial results: “The real risk to the University’s future comes from relying on the current unsustainable path of work intensification and casualisation. These arrangements put quality at risk – and if quality falls, students have many other global choices on offer.”
Staff presented a united front at the meeting, with NTEU members stressing the need for action to achieve the goals set out in the log of claims. The involvement of traditionally politically inactive sections of the University, such as the Business School, whose representative decried management’s “wholesale attack on uni life as we know it,” may foreshadow a particularly intense round of EBA negotiations.
Improving staff conditions
The NTEU is demanding that staff no longer be required to perform excessive or uncompensated work, which includes contact outside of working hours.
Among the key demands was that salary rates and allowances for all NTEU members employed by the University be increased by a flat rate of 12% by 31 December 2024, when the next Enterprise Agreement is expected to expire.
The supporting statement emphasises how staff have been overworked since the beginning of the pandemic as they’ve developed new methods to adapt to hybrid teaching, but have not been rewarded with any recognition for this extra time and stress.
Notably, professional staff in Student Services are arguing for the removal of individual metrics and Key Performance Indicators, such as set times for resolving queries, which cause workload stress for staff and obstruct the quality of service for students.
Hoping for better job security, the log of claims demands no forced redundancies, retrenchment (including voluntary) only when the work is not required, rights to conversion to permanent positions for fixed-term staff, and indefinite redeployment in the redundancy process to prevent job cuts.
Opposing the exploitation of casuals
Key to the log of claims are demands that the University prevent wage theft of casuals and decrease its profit-motivated dependence on an increasingly casualised workforce.
It stipulates that casuals be paid by the hour for every hour worked, including hours in excess of the rolled up rate — frequently spent on unpaid administration work as seen in audits conducted by the USyd Casuals Network.
The NTEU is also calling for the Agreement to better facilitate the conversion of casual staff to ongoing positions and to minimise casual employment to short-term ad hoc work.
Casualised union members who stand at the coalface of exploitation are demanding paid sick leave, paid parental leave, paid domestic violence leave and a 17% employer superannuation contribution.
Diversifying employment and improved access to leave
Among the NTEU’s key demands is the establishment of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Joint Consultative Committee to meet an employment target of no less than 3% of fixed-term and continuing staff (from the current 1.1%).
Moreover, it notes that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees should not be concentrated in lower classified positions and should have up to ten days paid leave to attend cultural obligations.
The log of claims also seeks improved employment and retention of staff from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and staff with disabilities, specifying how the Agreement can facilitate these goals.
Seeking to enshrine rights for transgender workers, the NTEU is pushing for gender transition/affirmation leave in the new Agreement, with employees to be afforded 30 days paid leave per annum for gender transition/affirmation steps and procedures.
A number of changes to parental leave are also envisioned in the claim. The NTEU will seek paid special leave for premature babies that require special care, and a provision that fixed-term contracts be extended where contracts are interrupted by parental leave. The union is also advocating for paid leave following miscarriage and stillbirth.
In line with the experiences of the present pandemic, a provision for paid pandemic leave has been included in the log of claims. This would mean staff are paid while required to self-isolate or quarantine.
The union is further asking that the University make COVID vaccines available to staff, and provide staff with paid leave to access those vaccines.
Protecting the rights of unionists
The NTEU is moreover demanding that the Agreement provide for union rights and measures that will build membership such as paid time for employees to attend union meetings and links to union material on the staff intranet.
Critically, it notes that no staff should be surveilled or disadvantaged as a result of union activities, after documents came to light about management’s use of Dataminr to track an NTEU open-air seminar last year.
It calls for the Agreement to protect academic freedom and promote the rights of staff to engage in public debate, including on governance of the University. This is in light of reports that casual staff have suddenly been given no work after speaking up.
The log of claims will be formally presented to the University, as the union begins to plan its negotiating strategy.
NTEU Branch President Patrick Brownlee has been contacted for comment. This article will be updated when it is received.