The tertiary education union faced a major uprising from its members regarding a secret plan to negotiate with university management regarding staff salary cuts during the Covid-19 crisis.
The Australian university sector has been thrown into financial turmoil since the coronavirus pandemic began, with border closures and forced campus closures crippling income and forced several universities to make drastic budget cuts.
Facing the possibility of job losses on a large scale among its members, on April 3 the national leadership of the National Tertiary Education Union held talks to plan their strategies for responding to the crisis.
National executives make a series of resolutions that must be kept internal or to “share confidential, limited”.
The list of resolutions, obtained by the Australian Guardian, shows that he ordered national officials to “start national-level negotiations in response to the Covid-19 crisis” with universities.
The union decides that “concessions can be made”, including “concessions on payments”, which can include payment holds, suspension of increases, or “in extreme circumstances, temporary general reductions in the level of the Agreement”.
Such concessions will only be made if they are needed to prevent job loss, the union decides, and will only be made as a “last resort”. Any cuts that are broken into need to be done in a way that protects low-paid workers and has “a greater effect on recipients of higher salaries”.
“Every salary concession must be accompanied by a relatively larger deduction in the VC / senior executive salary package,” the union decided.
But the decision has triggered a strong reaction from within the union membership.
More than 500 members, many of whom are senior academics from universities across Australia, have now signed a petition rejecting NTEU’s position and attacking its leadership for not consulting with them before passing a resolution.
“We reject the concession with our wages and conditions,” the petition said.
“There is no guarantee that sacrificing conditions that are difficult to win will save one job [and] many of us live in households with people who have lost their jobs or many hours, and cannot afford to sacrifice anymore. [If] Workers in some of the richest institutions in Australia decided to give up, it set a bad precedent for workers everywhere. “
A meeting of around 150 activist members on Thursday, held by the RMIT branch of the union, criticized the union for proposing that “our members sacrifice salaries and requirements to cover losses”, while asking the government to provide additional assistance by covering all lost student income.
Activists unanimously decided to campaign against the loss of salaries or conditions, and urged the union to hold state and federal meetings for members.
“We are committed to increasing actions to maintain our salaries, conditions and work – up to and including industrial action,” the member said.
NTEU’s general secretary, Matthew McGowan, said unions had been forced to move quickly to try to protect jobs in the rapidly developing crisis.
“As you can see … workers actually quit their jobs almost overnight, and our fear is that this will happen at the university very quickly,” he said.
“So we are moving very fast to try and overcome that problem, and to try and do what we can to protect people’s work and their income.”
McGowan said he welcomed the debate about the position of the union and would ensure that members were consulted broadly. No agreement will be concluded without the support of members, he said.
The union unveiled its plans with members via email on April 8, he said, less than a week after the national executive resolution and initial talks with the University of Australia.
But angry members said the e-mail did not reveal a resolution to consider negotiating a payment cut.
After e-mails from union leaders describing parts of their positions last week, branch members from the University of Sydney issued a motion condemning the leadership and opposing “cost-saving measures”.
The motion demanded that NTEU “not make a large offer to the government or business” without holding a member vote.
Nick Riemer, an academic at Sydney University, called NTEU’s position “a very serious violation of solidarity”.
“It is not only NTEU’s leadership that suggests that payment losses are also OK; it also gave management the green light to throw casual staff under the bus, “he said.
Other branches have followed. The University of Melbourne issued a motion condemning NTEU’s leadership “for underestimating our industrial and political response by offering wages and concession terms to our employers”.
Members at Victoria University chose to express their deep concern about the position and demand “the cancellation of any agreements that have been negotiated”.
Fleur Taylor, a member of the Victoria University branch, said staff felt the union was entertaining concessions with salaries and conditions before campaigning appropriately to get federal government support.
On Thursday, RMIT staff said that they would “prepare a strong campaign to urge members to vote ‘no’ on concessions on terms and payments” and committed to “stepping up actions to maintain our salaries, conditions and employment – up to and including industrial action. “.
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