On May 1st the UNE branch of the National Tertiary Education Union held a picket and 24 hour strike as part of its latest efforts to sway enterprise bargaining discussions with UNE management. The strike, held by an estimated 50 members of academic and English language teaching staff, was described by NTEU Armidale branch President Dr Tim Battin as the Union’s only option following 12 months of lesser industrial action and what the University believes have been ‘good faith’ discussions.
Staff picketed throughout the morning at the corner of Elm Avenue and Trevenna Road, bearing signs at cars that drove past and stopping passing students to discuss the significance of the action. A member of UNE’s academic staff at the picket told Nucleus that enterprise bargaining discussions don’t only concern staff, but also affect students and the quality of education that the University provides.
UNE Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Annabelle Duncan said the university has made “quite a number of concessions” regarding the NTEU’s suggested changes, but criticised the Union for asking for what she claims is “way above what anyone else in the [tertiary education] sector would expect to get”.
Included in the NTEU’s requests are a 7% per year pay increase over four years for academic staff. Professor Duncan asserted that this amounts to a 31% increase over time, which given her estimate of a lecturer’s average salary as $100,000, is a pay increase to which the University “cannot agree”. The Deputy Vice Chancellor further suggests the federal government’s recent 3.56% reduction in tertiary education funding has made financial concessions even more unlikely. Dr Battin however argues Professor Duncan’s case would be “much more cogent” if the university had done all it could to offer financial concessions prior to the Prime Minister’s announcement.
Outside of financial matters, Dr Battin said the NTEU’s efforts were aimed at restoring a “collegiality” to the University, and described the University’s insistence on achieving the aims outlined in its Strategic Plan 2011-2015 (accessible online) as “distractions” from the priorities the Union believes the University should have. He outlined these priorities as a mature sector staffed by well qualified people; decent remuneration; an institution characterised by transparency and accountability; appropriate complaint handling procedures; and freedom among staff and students to express themselves. These priorities he said should aim to restore a “well organised and functioning university community”.
Professor Annabelle Duncan denies the University and management’s lack of collegiality, and both UNE management and the NTEU accuse the other of failing to consult sufficiently throughout the negotiation process. In the past month discussions between the the parties have cemented as a standoff between two near-diametrically opposed groups. A statement by Professor Duncan sent to staff last month said that the University would not be swayed by industrial action. Dr Battin cited that statement as an example of “infantilising behaviour” by the University, and responded in saying “we’re grown up people, we’re professional people and we expect to be treated decently”.
While movement on the issue has ground to a resolute halt, the easing of this stalemate will be watched closely by staff, students, management and Nucleus alike.
- Elias Wilson