Universities are hardly known for strikes, picket lines and industrial unrest. So why is the University of Sydney experiencing the most serious industrial action on an Australian campus for generations? Last semester saw five days of strikes, and two more have been voted on for August.
The current crisis started in 2011. Sydney management announced that it was going to force numerous academics into punitive teaching-only positions or redundancy because it had miscalculated student fee income. To do this, it shifted the goalposts on work performance: if you hadn’t produced four research publications in less than three years, your job was under threat.
This arbitrarily imposed performance indicator preferred quantity to quality and made a mockery of the idea that academics need to do research to be able to teach properly. It was also new and retrospective, and it triggered an outcry. How could it possibly be fair to punish employees for failing to observe a condition they’d never been informed of?
That same disrespect has characterised university management’s approach in the current enterprise bargaining round, the catalyst of the strike campaign. Sydney management, backed up by the university Senate, wanted to strip away clauses fundamental to the life of a university, like guarantees of intellectual freedom and anti-discriminatory employment practices.
Academic staff would be forced to teach more and research less, and general staff would lose their right to be classified correctly for the work they really do.
Redundancies would be easier for management to declare, free of oversight or review. The current generous sick-leave entitlements would be drastically cut, even though there is no evidence of any abuse. The staff unions would be sidelined.
Unions mounted a vigorous strike campaign that successfully headed off all these attacks. They were only able to do so because university staff recognised that management’s intentions were body-blows to the values on which universities should be predicated: intellectual freedom, commitment to transparency and natural justice, collective staff organisation and collegial decision-making.
University management’s scant regard for traditional academic values surfaced again last semester when it was revealed that it had tried to censor an appearance at the university by the Dalai Lama for fear of upsetting China, a major source of fee income.
As well as safeguarding existing conditions, the strikes progressed some other important claims, including a commitment to reduce the casualisation of teaching. This will materially improve conditions for both staff and students at the university.
A number of key conditions remain under negotiation; however, finalisation of an agreement is being delayed due to current differences concerning pay. A university with world-class ambitions must compensate its staff appropriately. This is even more the case in Sydney, one of the world’s most expensive cities. NTEU members are asking for a 4 per cent increase. This closely matches average wage increases in the national public sector. Four per cent a year wage increases have already been agreed to by Curtin, Central Queensland and Edith Cowan universities.
Despite a staff survey recording abysmal levels of confidence in management, Sydney’s senior managers received generous bonuses averaging 14 per cent last year, but are refusing to backdate a staff pay rise. Their current pay offer therefore represents a real wage cut of 0.5 per cent a year once the current CPI for Sydney is taken into account.
Critics malign the NTEU for pursuing “old-fashioned industrial militancy” in its fight for conditions and pay, and have suggested that union members’ current strike campaign is managed by a remote and Orwellian bureaucracy.
In fact, until this year members at the University had not taken industrial action for a decade. Every strike has been overwhelmingly voted for by the membership. The planned strikes on August 20 and at the University Open Day, August 31, are no exception. The NTEU Sydney branch has grown by hundreds of members during the campaign period and is the largest NTEU branch in Australia.
Sydney is a wealthy institution and a fair pay offer is more than affordable. Over the past five years revenue has increased between 4.4 per cent and 8.9 per cent. This resulted in surpluses of more than $386 million. In the same period, fee income increased by more than $150 million.
NTEU members wish to finalise an enterprise agreement as soon as possible; however, they are resolved to ensuring that all aspects of the agreement are fair. This includes appropriate wage recognition of cost of living pressures, staff contributions to the success of the University of Sydney over the life of the current enterprise agreement and the substantial contribution they will make over the life of the next one.
More is always being expected of staff; this needs to be reflected in pay. Staff are the heart of any university. A management determined to undermine their conditions spells real danger for the quality tertiary system that our society needs.
Linda Connor is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sydney and a member of the NTEU enterprise bargaining team.