University union officials want SALARY CUTS. Still

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University union officials want SALARY CUTS. Still

Deep pay cuts and worse conditions are part of a university deal that National Union of Higher Education officials are touting as the way forward for the entire sector.

The deal at Western Sydney University will force a real pay rate cut of more than 7.7 per cent for most of its staff in the year to June 2023 as pay rises do not follow Reserve Bank inflation estimates. This is the case for all academics, including casuals.

A lecturer, already down more than $5,700 in June this year, will be down more than $11,300 next year and nearly $12,000 in 2024.

The lowest paid professional staff (workers in levels one through five of the HEW staff classification) will receive a $1,000 annual increase in their rate. But that translates into a real pay cut of between 5.8 and 6.5% by June next year. Similarly, a $500 increase in rates for Tier Six and Seven staff will make them more than 7% worse.

The minimum research time for scholars will be reduced and their grading loads increased. In negotiations with Western Sydney University management, union officials dropped demands that casual workers would receive sick leave and the same superannuation rate as permanent workers.

The ongoing round of corporate bargaining at Australian universities is an opportunity to defend and advance member wages and conditions through sustained strike action. The NTEU leaders are not only wasting the chance to make advances for the workers they are supposed to represent, they are trying to shore up their own positions within the bureaucracy by selling a dubious path to members.

NSW Division Secretary Damien Cahill rushed to proclaim the tentative deal at Western Sydney a blueprint for the whole union, even before all of its details had been hammered out. But it is certain that the agreement trades in lower real wages and lower conditions for minor or questionable “concessions” from management, notably on employment. Cahill is the outgoing leadership’s candidate for national secretary in the current union elections. The “victory” he claims in Western Sydney is part of his election campaign.

Under pressure from NTEU Fightback, a grassroots activist group within the union, officials raised the demand for the mandatory wage to inflation plus 1.5%. Several branches of the NTEU have decided that they want inflation plus 2.5%, in line with Fightback’s proposal.

Officials insisted that plus 1.5% was a cap, not a floor. But now union leaders have approved deep real-wage cuts for Western Sydney workers, while the university has boosted profits by $22m in 2020 to $143 million last year.

The agreement also appears to reduce research fractions for academics. The previous agreement stipulated that at least twelve of the 48 annual working weeks would be devoted to “scholarly activities”, that is to say research, or a research fraction of 25%. The minimum research fraction in the new agreement is only 20%.

The academics’ correction load will increase from 135 to 150 students per session.

Topping the list of advances claimed by NTEU leaders is “150 new permanent jobs.” Recall that Western Sydney has reduced the full-time equivalent of 343 continuous and fixed-term jobs from 2019 to 2021. The 150 “new” full-time equivalent jobs are therefore not so new.

University managements have laid off longer-serving workers because they are generally on higher classifications and raises. This limits pension payments. Cheaper young workers can then be hired. Recent mass layoffs at many universities have gone beyond any long-term staff reductions previously planned by bosses. So there would always be more hiring once the covid panic passed.

Western Sydney casual workers are supposed to get those 150 jobs, which are supposed to be permanent positions. But as part of the deal, existing casuals will just be able to apply first for jobs. Management will decide if people are appointed. And, at least for a period (still undetermined), these jobs will not benefit from “regular research allowances”.

Real access routes to employment for casual workers are possible. For example, the union could require that workers automatically obtain permanent status if they have been employed casually for more than a specified number of weeks in a given period.

Instead, the union dropped its demands for better conditions for casual workers at the expense of the university – another way of pushing management to cut casual employment.

The announced “25% reduction in casual university work” sounds pretty good. But it’s unclear to what extent this “commitment” is enforceable, as opposed to ambitious. Corporate agreements in higher education are littered with lofty, unenforceable “goals” and “targets” that are never achieved.

Neither that nor other important issues are spelled out in the ‘key agreements’ or ‘summary of key clauses’, which are all Western Sydney unionists received ahead of the tentative vote on the deal. Even these summaries were not made available to the full membership of the NTEU when “victory” was proclaimed everywhere.

Does management have escape clauses, such as there are for “professional staff working from home” and “genuine restructuring protections”?

Professional workers will be able to work from home two days a week, but supervisors will be able to push back a “request” that they decide “is unreasonable and…would unduly disrupt the work of the unit”. Workers will not be subject to more than one threat of dismissal during the term of the agreement “subject to exceptional circumstances”.

What else was ‘earned’ at Western Sydney in exchange for pay cuts?

There is a provision to ensure that when reorganizations abolish positions, the remaining workers will not have higher workloads. Again, looks good, but no indication that management will be forced to fill vacant posts.

The maximum academic teaching time will be reduced by one hour per week. But managers can prevent this reduction if they insist on measuring workloads not in terms of hours, but in terms of “full-time equivalent student load”, the upper limit of which remains unchanged.

The provision for the conversion of fixed-term contracts into permanent jobs has been strengthened somewhat, but the difficult requirement of three years of continuous employment before conversion has not been changed.

There are also changes that are worthwhile but cost management little or nothing: retirement for workers on unpaid parental leave; gender affirmation leave; five minutes from the union during staff induction sessions; an Indigenous employment target of 3 percent of the workforce (again without any mention of an enforcement mechanism); preservation of indigenous intellectual property rights.

The NTEU branch of Western Sydney University is relatively weak. And the agreement follows a symbolic half-day strike. In contrast, the strongest branch in the country is at the University of Sydney, where workers generally enjoy the best pay and conditions. There have been three days of strikes, and further actions are planned, on an ambitious set of union demands that would reduce workloads, improve job security and raise real wages.

Sadly, according to the university’s student newspaper, union local chairman Nick Riemer thinks the Western Sydney deal “should reset [enterprise agreement] negotiations everywhere”. It would be a huge retirement for workers across the sector and especially at the University of Sydney. Western Sydney management was only too happy to accept the capitulation of NTEU officials, even if it relied on the rhetoric of “union victory”.

This all continues the colossal sale of wages and conditions that the same NTEU national leadership team offered in the first half of 2020 in the face of widespread job cuts that university principals blamed on covid. The so-called Jobs Protection Framework has been scrapped due to a widespread revolt by rank-and-file unionists, which has also led most university bosses to rethink the benefits of such a deal across the board. ‘industry.

Where local versions of the jobs protection framework have been adopted by the joint action of management and union officials, wages have been cut and jobs have not been protected, they have been cut. This has happened at Latrobe and Monash universities, the University of Western Australia and Western Sydney University.

Tying the jobs protection framework to the latest agreement is, in the boastful words of the chairman of the Western Sydney NTEU branch, “something strange and remarkable”. But that’s not because it’s heroic; it is because union leaders continue to sacrifice the livelihoods of their members for the bottom line of management.

No wonder NTEU officials have turned to Western Sydney University this time around for a dubious ‘victory’ and a way out of undertaking the kind of industrial campaigns that could improve members’ lives but require massive organizational efforts.

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