Industrial uproar in universities
by Peter Mac Australia's universities are seething with anger at the Howard Government's latest industrial blackmail concerning university industrial relations. The government has notified universities that their access to an extra $414 million in funding will be conditional on them introducing harsh new industrial relations practices. Under the government's proposed new conditions for universities to qualify for funding increases, all university employees would have to be notified individually that they have "the option" of entering into individual workplace agreements. In practice, this would take the form of pressuring employees to abandon collective union agreements. Universities would not be allowed to remind employees of the other option, i.e. entering into collective bargaining agreements. Nor would they be permitted to provide union membership forms or facilities for union offices, including student unions. The terms of individual agreements would override those of any collective agreement. Universities would not be permitted to place any limits on the number of casual employment positions. And in perhaps the most outrageous move of all, universities would not be allowed to enter into any agreement that included arrangements in excess of "community standards", i.e. anything better than a current agreement in widespread use. For example, the requirement would prevent acceptance by university authorities of improvements in redundancy payments. If carried to its logical conclusion, this requirement would eliminate any future improvements in working conditions for university employees. The government's new edict was timed to forestall the introduction of a new collective industrial relations agreement for Sydney University employees. The agreement included provision for a limit to the number of casual positions, and the introduction of 36 weeks of paid maternity leave, both of which are in excess of "community standards". Because of the government's move, Sydney University authorities have postponed signing the collective agreement, and the University's employees have voted to take industrial action in protest, including a strike on October 6, the first day of the new term. The agreement was widely expected to have been the forerunner for negotiations on similar agreements at other universities. As a result of the government's move and the university's response, all such negotiations are now in jeopardy. A number of universities previously caved in to pressure from the Howard Government over other issues. The most notable case was that of Sydney University, whose conservative senate voted recently to accept in principle the raising of student fees by a maximum of 30 percent, in the event that the government managed to get the necessary legislation through Parliament. However, even the most conservative university authorities have expressed shock at the government's latest requirements, and opposition to their introduction. Sydney University's Vice-Chancellor, Professor Gavin Brown, said that he was taken by surprise at the extremity of the government's new policies. He commented grimly: "I have a fairly strong feeling that there will be universities that will say that impact on the quality of education we can offer, if we are forced to comply with these regulations, is not worth the money." The executive Director of the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, John Mulharvey last week expressed doubts as to whether such iron constraints were consistent with the government's own aim of fostering "flexible and responsive" work practices. He stated that: "We don't believe that university operating grants should be tied to such provisions." ACTU President Sharon Burrow said the union movement would back the National Tertiary Education Union and other unions covering university employees, in opposing the government's attack on university unionism. She declared that: "The requirements are unfair, discriminatory and extremist. The regulations specifically aim to erode long-standing benefits like redundancy pay, and to promote the use of casual labour. Collective agreements would become worthless for any staff forced onto individual contracts, which would override existing arrangements. "The changes would contravene internationally recognised rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. The government is using standover tactics to force its extremist policies onto university staff and management. "Mr Abbott has failed to get his industrial legislation through the parliament and is now trying to bully universities to adopt his policies by threatening them with massive funding cuts. "These changes will do nothing to solve real workplace problems in universities, such as high levels of job insecurity and excessive student- to-staff ratios." Student unions under attack The government's anti-union position extends beyond the employee industrial relations arena to student unionism. The association representing student unions, the Australian Campus Union Managers Association (ACUMA) said that the legislation "has the ability to cripple student organisations at Australian universities." The abolition of compulsory student unionism has the potential to eliminate 600 jobs, (including 115 positions at Deakin University alone), and to drastically cut the level of student services provided. These services include health and counselling services, child care, sports and entertainment. However, the Liberal Party's student offshoot, the Australian Liberal Students Federation, has actually defended the government 's move. Tanya Skelpic, the Federation's President, pointed out with airy disdain that students with limited means now have to get part-time jobs to get through uni courses, and therefore "The ones that need to work and put themselves through uni don't have time to enjoy the (union) services." Ms Skelpic ignores the fact that the very reason why students with limited means have to work to support themselves is the imposition of huge student fees by the Howard Government, which she defends. She overlooks the stress that this situation causes, and also the fact that child-care services are vital for student mothers to complete courses. She also ignores the importance of entertainment as a crucial element in relieving the stress of study, which has now been compounded by the financial worries over the student fees.