In the wake of the cancellation of the union agreement at Murdoch University by the Fair Work Commission, the NTEU is bargaining with confident and aggressive university managements.

At Murdoch itself, management want to move many of the previous provisions in the agreement into university policy—making them totally unenforceable.

Nationally, the NTEU has been in a rush to settle agreements to try and prevent another Murdoch-style termination. Sadly, this has meant university bosses have gotten away with far more than they should have.

Agreements settled at Edith Cowan University, Curtin University, and the University of Western Australia, all in WA, have held onto most conditions, but at the cost of totally inadequate pay rises (just over 1 per cent per year at UWA). Elsewhere, the highest pay rises have been 2 per cent per year at Central Queensland University and 2.1 per cent at Sydney University—in contrast, the lowest pay rises in the last bargaining round were around 3 per cent a year.

Most agreements now include provisions to extend 17 per cent superannuation to all fixed term staff, but these do not come into force until 2020 or 2021. The aim to extend this to casuals has been quietly dropped.

Many agreements have weakened review and misconduct committees for staff facing disciplinary action—something that managements around the country are seeking to attack. The University of Canberra has lost most of them entirely, and Deakin have replaced a review committee with a single independent reviewer. Others have extended the span of hours staff can be asked to work.

The strategy of rushing to sign agreements has not discouraged management from aggression. Victoria University has disgracefully put up the union Branch President, Secretary and Vice-President for redundancy just as bargaining is scheduled to start. The university has hired a union-busting law firm that cut its teeth at Patrick Stevedores and the Country Fire Authority (CFA).

Melbourne University has refused almost all of the union’s claims, at the same time they are seeking to reduce face-to-face teaching with an extension of online learning.

Despite this, the fact non-union ballots failed at Sydney University and James Cook University shows staff are angry.

At Sydney University, management withdrew attacks on review committees and Scholarly Teaching Fellows, and staff won partial sick leave for casuals after only one 24-hour weekday strike. Further industrial action could have won better pay, and secured key claims such as “no forced redundancies” and the extension of 17 per cent superannuation to casuals. This would have set a higher benchmark for staff around the country.

There is a real appetite for continuing to campaign at the universities still in bargaining. UTS and Western Sydney Uni (WSU) union members have taken successful strike action. Conditions are under attack at both campuses. On October 31, UTS union members voted to implement bans on releasing results and to for another 24 hour strike on November 16 unless key demands are met. They will join a Unions NSW endorsed weekday protest against Turnbull’s attacks on workers.

Our best defense against the “Murdoch option” is organising and taking industrial action, which builds the strength, confidence, and unity that is necessary to defend our union agreements and win gains.

By Amy Thomas

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