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In support of striking staff at the University of Sydney

Lee Rhiannon 14 Jun 2013

A key part my role as a Greens Senator is supporting campaigns for progressive change that are taking place on the streets and in the workplace. One such struggle is the current NTEU and CPSU enterprise bargaining campaign at the University of Sydney, which will have far reaching consequences for the future of higher education across the sector.

In conversations with university staff on the picket lines, long-term unionists have told me that the level of industrial action at the University of Sydney - five strike days over the course of semester one - is unprecedented. They say they have been forced to take this action in opposition to a similarly unprecedented attack by university management on their wages and conditions, which would negatively impact the quality of education for current and future students. 

Recently released survey results indicate that the decision by the overwhelming majority of union members to take ongoing strike action aligns with widespread discontent among staff over the direction of the university under Vice Chancellor Spence.  The survey found that staff perceptions of management performance were markedly more negative than at other Group of Eight universities.

For example, only 20% of staff thought that the Senior Executive Group listens to other staff and 22% thought that change was handled well by management - 18% and 14% below the average of comparable universities, respectively. At the same time, 84% had confidence in the ability of their colleagues and 86% were proud to work for the University of Sydney.

It is not hard to understand why staff feel this way when we look at the objective conditions of work at the university and the approach of management to staff at the bargaining table.

One of the key demands by the unions has been for management to reduce their reliance on casual work. NTEU members gave evidence about the demoralising treadmill of casual work at a recent parliamentary inquiry into insecure work initiated by the Greens.

The inquiry was told that casuals are in a constant state of anxiety about where their next short-term contract will come from in the face of ongoing and permanent living costs. They highlighted the fact that they receive no leave entitlements and other protections if they get sick, have caring commitments or simply need a holiday, and they are required to take on large amounts of unpaid work.

Across the country, around half of undergraduate teaching is now performed by casuals and the trend towards casualisation has been no different at Sydney University. In their submission to the Higher Education Base Funding Review in 2011, the University of Sydney said (p.14):

A further indication of possible challenges to the quality of educational offerings is the increasing trend towards the reliance on casual staff for teaching in some faculties, but particularly in our generalist disciplines... [I]n the Faculty of Arts from 2006 to 2011...casual and part-time teaching hours increased by 54 per cent...[T]his is the best indication we can provide, in the time available, of the increasing trend towards casualisation in response to financial pressures

After the fourth strike day this semester, management were pressured into agreeing to provisions that would have a real impact on reducing the trend towards casualisation. However, I was disappointed to find out that unions had been told that these and other wins were conditional on staff accepting a real pay cut over the course of the agreement.

University staff have been forced onto an effective wage freeze since January 2012 due to management delaying enterprise bargaining negotiations. Their revised offer of below 3% per year will not keep up with rising housing, childcare and energy costs in Sydney - ranked in one measure as the third most expensive city in the world.

It is unjustifiable when compared alongside  the Vice Chancellor's own bonus last year of $155,000 - an over 20% increase on his base salary - and the NSW Auditor General's report showing that the university is sitting on a $137 million operating surplus.

These figures suggest that management have used and exaggerated cost constraints as part of a last ditch effort to change the very fabric of the university towards a corporate model. This strategy is most obvious in their approach to the rights of unions following last year's successful campaign by the NTEU and students against narrow performance measures which saved hundreds of jobs. Management's attempts to write the union out of the enterprise agreement failed, but I understand they are still attempting to impose restrictions on the ability of unions to maintain a presence on campus.   

Union rights are particularly significant in the context of the federal Labor Government announcing $2.3 billion in budget cuts to higher education, which have already gained the support of the Coalition. The Greens are campaigning hard both within and outside parliament to stop these cuts because they will hurt students and staff.  More than ever, we need strong unions for university staff to stop management attempts to use the federal budget as cover for more job, course and service cuts. 

The announcement of cuts to higher education funding in the midst of the industrial dispute at the University of Sydney has crystallised two competing visions of the future of higher education.

On one side, we have the major parties and management teams like those at Sydney University that want to place educational opportunities and critical research in the hands of the market. On the other side, we have staff unions, student activists and the Greens that want our public universities to be places where secure staff and supported students can cooperate through teaching, learning and research to advance ideas to make the world a better place. 

Lee Rhiannon


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