Industrial Action at UNE: A Closer Look

strike, drawing

Since their Collective Agreements - the documents that describes and defines the terms and conditions of staff employment - expired in July and November 2012, respectively, academic and non-academic university staff have been in drawn-out negotiations with UNE management to compile new agreements. Eighteen months later, neither side have offered any great compromise on major issues. But why? And what does it really mean for students? Bridgette Glover spoke to Tim Battin, the president of UNE’s NTEU Branch, and to Deputy Vice-Chancellor Annabelle Duncan, to clarify why staff have been holding strikes and what effects this has. 

What is the NTEU?

The National Tertiary Education Union, or NTEU, is an Australia-wide representative body for all university staff. Each state or territory has a Division, and each university has a different Branch. The Community and Public Sector Union, or CPSU, is a separate union, which represents only non-academic staff. The unions promote improved working conditions for staff.

Who are staff?

ACADEMIC STAFF are your teachers, lecturers, professors, and the like. Most academic staff are also involved in research, and currently academic staff are officially allocated 40% time towards teaching, 40% to research, and 20% to administrative responsibilities.

NON-ACADEMIC STAFF are the people who make the wheels turn outside the classroom, including technical officers and admin assistants, coordinators and managers. These are referred to as general of professional staff.

ENGLISH LANGUAGE TEACHERS have previously been represented under the same agreement as professional staff, but in the current negotiations the NTEU is requesting that they be included with academic staff. According to NTEU President Tim Battin, this is because the NTEU feels it can “protect (English language teachers) much better” in their union.

Who are ‘Management’?

When we refer to UNE management, we are referring to the tier of administrative professionals that execute the decisions that govern the University of New England. This generally speaking is the executive: the Vice-Chancellor Jim Barber, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Annabelle Duncan, Pro Vice-Chancellor Michael Crock, Chief Operating Officer David Cushway, Chief Financial Officer Michelle Clarke, Chief Legal and Governance Officer Brendan Peet, and others. In regards to the workplace agreement negotiations, Annabelle Duncan acts as the chief spokesperson on the matter, with her and David Cushway playing senior roles in the bargaining process.

The Process: Enterprise Bargaining

It’s factored in to the operation of the university that enterprise bargaining will take place in order to reach new workplace agreements following the expiry of existing agreements. The NTEU puts forward claims for the new agreement, then discussions and negotiations are held between the union and management to see if the claims can be resolved and an agreement reached.

Industrial action is resorted to when such an agreement cannot be reached, and can include strikes, work stoppages and pickets, as have been seen several times at UNE this year, or even the withholding of results. Union members are legally permitted to strike, but must register a form with the university confirming their participation. According to Annabelle Duncan, striking has little effect on the university. What both parties do agree on is that industrial action should have the minimum impact possible on students.

The Bigger Picture

The process of negotiations taking place is not unique to UNE and nor is the lack of progress. Whilst the University of Sydney NTEU cancelled a 72-hour strike in October due to having reached a ‘great’ agreement, many other unions have not had success, with Monash, Deakin and Swinburne Universities all seeing union members decide to withhold exam results in order to step-up industrial action. Battin notes this would only have been a last resort at UNE, but mentions that action in Trimester 3 may be necessary if negotiations do not progress.

The Key Issues

TEACHING-ONLY POSITIONS The NTEU says that UNE management is pushing for teaching-only positions, which contrasts with the current combined teaching-research-administration arrangement. The NTEU is opposed to teaching-only positions because of concerns of overworking and detrimental effects on research, however management is adamant that they “do not want teaching only positions. We want a sliding scale” – that is, permitting teachers to choose their own balance between the three kinds of work. In terms of pay, Annabelle Duncan noted that “if we do that, that… has implications on workloads.” She said that if staff offered to take on higher percentages of teaching workloads, that would be “…financially [a] good move for the university… if we get that, we can offer a bit more in terms of pay rise. If we don’t get that we can’t offer more.”

PAY The NTEU has put forward a claim in the negotiations for a pay increase of 7% per annum over four years for all staff; as yet management have made no offer in response. But despite the NTEU believing they deserve this rise, Battin concedes that what is really important is having “a much nicer place to work.” The lack of compromise on behalf of management is frustrating according to Battin, who interprets it as an absence of recognition of the hard work of staff, who he points out go a long way to the good financial state of the university, citing UNE’s recent announcement of a predicted $19 million surplus in the university’s budget for 2014.

TRIMESTERS AND WORKLOAD The trimester calendar structure, introduced at UNE last year, is regarded by the NTEU as a problem that needs to be resolved. They accept that management will be persistent with the trimester system, but have proposed and are requesting that the current T3 period become a 6-7 week intensive period to restore the traditional calendar between late February and early December. Management believes that although there have been workload implications with the introduction of trimesters, things can be done to improve the negative aspects. According to Annabelle Duncan, “You’ve only got to look at the number of students that are enrolling to know that students want trimesters,” continuing to note that “a university is here to educate students, to provide a service in educating students, and to do research.”

OTHER ISSUES A range of other issues are also being negotiated. These include:

- Outsourcing and casualisation, also concerns raised by the NTEU. Casualisation is the process whereby more people are hired on a casual contract, and the NTEU want to limit this, allowing casuals to convert to a more secure, continuous position. Outsourcing is when the employer decides to contract someone else to do the job that their current employee does. The NTEU want to eliminate this. Management have not agreed to either claims.

- Pay rise for English language teachers: the NTEU claim that the English language teachers are some of the most qualified staff, but among the poorest paid.

- Grievances and complaints: the NTEU’s claim is to make these comprehensive procedures.


I’m a student - Why should I care about this?

Where do students fit in all of this? Whilst it is true that no university would function without any one of its three working components – students, staff and management – it is important also that no group loses sight of the other two. So have management or unions, battling out the pay and working conditions, lost sight of students? Both assure us they endeavour to ensure the fallout from such a stalemate has the minimal possible impact on students. Annabelle Duncan says that management’s goal from the bargaining is an agreement that “rewards our staff, allows us to manage our staff, to give the best possible profession outcomes that affect upon the teaching for our students.” Tim Battin said that “We’re trying to re-fashion a workplace in which it’s a better place to work, and if it’s a better place to work, it’s a better place to come through university”.

But the other question, then, is whether unions and management are lost from the sight of students. Ultimately, the results of such negotiations impact on student learning, beyond the odd class missed on strike days or management being distracted by ongoing discussions. Ultimately, the workplace of staff, the responsibility of management, and the learning environment of students, combine: they’re the one thing, and that is the university.


Timeline of Key Events

February 2013: Staff vote in ballot over industrial action. Meeting was held, unanimous for work-to-rule action

March 2013: Work-to-rule industrial action went underway from the 4th

1st May 2013: Strike and picket action

July 2013: Status of Claims Summary released

August 2013: 600 staff participated in a large survey, for the purpose of management to the understand staff priorities.

12th August to 2nd of September 2013: Industrial action taken

22nd October 2013: Strike and picket action


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- Bridgette Glover and Sarita Perston

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